Being a novel, all characters, events, dialogue and representations are fictional ... and in no way are meant to represent any real or living persons or events... except the few annual events that are used to move me through time. The opinions expressed are my own, and not necessarily those of my author. And the story is copyrighted, by my author of course. Oh, and from time to time I may include some real time events to keep the blog more authentic. Comments and suggestions will be appreciated and seriously considered as the story moves along.

If you are just joining us, start with the Prologue and Chapter One on March 1, 2011, in the Archives.

Monday, March 14, 2011

March 14, Chapters 4 & 5

I’m here. In Lubbock at last. Here’s the rest of our journey on Saturday:

Chapter 4
   On the northern outskirts of Post, we drove up the last major geographical transition of the caprock, a dramatic steep hill, often impassible in icy weather. Reaching the top, on the Llano Estacado at last, I looked east out over the vista that stretched at least twenty miles, (pictured) most of it a thousand feet below us. Gulleys, ravines and arroyos made a beautiful rugged display of red earth before leveling out to the eastern plains. Some call it “redbed country,” the transition land between East and West Texas — most of it used for ranching. 

   To my left, the flat level plain above the caprock began its seemingly endless journey west to New Mexico. I remembered reading about this vast region lying at the southern end of the country’s High Plains, part of what was once called the Great American Desert. About two hours north of Lubbock is the panhandle city of Amarillo. And just north of Amarillo is the Canadian River, the largest tributary of the Arkansas River. It sets Llano Estacado, or the South High Plains, apart from the rest of the High Plains. 

The Caprock Escarpment on the east defines the boundary with sharp, often precipitous cliffs, 300 to 1,000 feet tall. Part of the caprock is Palo Duro Canyon, just south of Amarillo. Wasn’t there a famous outdoor stage production there during the summers years ago? 

“There still is,” Sharon said. “I’ve been a couple of times. Definitely worth the drive.” Sharon and I put it on our “To Do” list.

   The Mescalera Escarpment on the edge of the Pecos River forms the western boundary of Llano Estacado. To the south, near Big Springs, the Llano blends into the Edwards Plateau with a subtle beauty of rolling stark terrain. In total, almost 38,000 square miles of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico claim the title of Llano Estacado. By comparison, it is slightly smaller than the whole of South Carolina, and twenty-four Rhode Islands would fit comfortably in the area.

   “What does Llano Estacado mean, Phelps?” I asked. “I know it translates as ‘staked plains,’ but what’s that?”

“Hmm?” she replied absently, turning from the eastern view. “Oh, I don’t know, Maggie. Doug will, though. I think he has a book on it. Something to do with ‘stakes’ or something. Seems there’s more than one theory. He’ll know.”

As we drove the last 40 miles to Lubbock, my pulse quickened at the first sight of the South Plains cotton fields, many of them freshly tilled and waiting for planting, with the promise of quick sprouting seedlings in acre upon acre of rich red land. Other fields still held stubble from last season’s crops, thin ragged brown sticks poking up from the earth at odd angles with the occasional green weed stubbornly growing nearby. 

Here and there a discarded piece of plastic was caught on the broken stalks, blowing furiously in the wind, trying to free itself for further adventure. It’s said all things finally end up in America’s rivers, but since this is a semi-arid climate, there are no nearby rivers — no steady surface streams heading for the ocean. Perhaps this plastic is destined to be buried in a sandstorm. Better than polluting the waterways, I thought, although I’m not sure the farmers would agree. 

We’d seen a few cotton fields back down around Roscoe – some in fact where both wind turbines and oil pumps sat in the middle – but the soil was a little different down there. Maybe more brown? Less sandy? But up here on the South Plains, the fields extended for miles, and no metal giants with turning blades marred their beauty. There is an occasional oil pump, but they are lower to the ground. I don’t think they break the terrain’s visual rhythm as obnoxiously as those huge wind turbines.   

   As the cotton grows, it, too, will alter the point at which land meets sky, and out here there is a lot of sky. Seasonal growth and harvesting create a natural undulation of horizontal change making the South Plains a “sea of growth” rather than the “sea of grass” as described by Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado, the first known European to cross this area in 1541.  

As always, South Plains farmers pray this year for abundant rain with alternating warm sunshine. Cotton is king in this part of West Texas, and more than one harvest over the years has been slight because of drought, or ruined by fierce hail storms. Each year is a gamble, and one can never be sure of a good harvest. But the percentages must favor good crops, because the farmers kept planting. 

But wasn’t that just like all life? You plan and work hard and know where you want to go, but then nature throws you a curve, changing everything. A plaque used to hang over my desk at SMU, “We plan, God laughs.” So true, I thought, and then turned my attention back to the road and the beckoning cotton fields.

   About ten miles south of Lubbock, the fencing on the west of the highway became uniform, and rather than posts of old Mesquite trees and barbed wire, it was black steel stakes with evenly spaced wire fencing. Miles of it. Running inside the length of the fence was a wide dirt road, broad enough to accommodate the turning of a tractor or a cotton picker during harvest. 
   Here, next to the highway, the fields are straight, but further in, the ground has been plowed into giant circles. Those circles use the latest irrigation systems set up on towering thin wheels. Glancing at them, I couldn’t imagine how a tractor pulled the huge sprinklers. They’re so tall and gangly looking. Maybe they’re self-propelled? I’ll have to ask someone at Tech. Maybe in the Ag department. Surely they’ll know. 

   Even though the huge circles can’t be easily detected from ground-level, I envisioned the area from the air, as I recently saw it on trips to and from Dallas. Hundreds of gigantic circular fields dotting the landscape, edges almost touching each other. Between growing seasons, the circles are yellow, brown or red. And dark green when the cotton grows. I also envisioned the small lakes shimmering in the sunlight after a rain. Playas, they’re called. Man-made or God-made? Another question to put on the list. 

The fields behind the black fencing seemed a little more well kept than those previously passed, and the huge irrigation wheels lightly dotted the land for as far as the eye could see. 

Farmers plant some fields and then irrigate them to help Mother Nature along. But they also plant dry fields, allowing Mother Nature to tend those by herself. A little less than half of the fields in this area are left to Mother Nature, and because West Texas conditions are often perfect for cotton, dry-land farming normally produces reasonable-yield crops, with really good crops coming on average once every three years. About one in seven years, however, dry-land crop yields are poor–but not bad enough to justify the high costs of irrigation. 

“How do you know all these facts, Maggie?” Sharon asked.

“Bought a Texas Almanac and looked them up. I thought I should reacquaint myself with the area, that’s all,” I shrugged. “I like to know the facts about where I’m going to live.”

“Well, I’ve lived here for more than 35 years, and I didn’t know all that. You sound like a walking encyclopedia. I does amaze me, though, how the farmers have the faith to gamble their livelihood each year. I guess it’s either feast or famine. A definite sign of strength. I wouldn’t have the fortitude to work all year for only one payday. I like the security of a regular paycheck that doesn’t rely on the weather. Especially since the stupid weather changes so much out here.”

I smiled, “Well, now you’ll know almost as much as I do.” I resumed my soliloquy, noticing Sharon was listening with interest despite her slight protest. Far in the distance to the west, I could see more oil pumps jutting up here and there, bringing up the black gold from deep underground. However, the wells were still more prevalent below the Caprock and down into the Permian Basin, nearer Midland and Odessa. That’s where a pipeline infrastructure makes pumping more profitable. Here, I knew, they stored the oil until transport trucks come to move it to the closest refinery or pipeline station. The dark metal pumps have always reminded me of giant praying mantises, heads slowly bobbing up and down, up and down.

After several miles of the black fencing, we passed a gate with a brand designed of a three-foot tall iron cotton boll. It was interlaced with the capital letter A welded on top of its high metal arch. Sharon said it was one of the relatively new entrances to the Cotton A ranch, one of the largest in the area, extending west into Hockley County, with cattle and cotton and oil. 

“Don’t know how many acres, but the family is pretty influential on the South Plains. Been here for several generations, from what I hear. I also hear they’re big Tech supporters. Probably have a suite at the stadium. All the rage among the wealthy.”

As far as the eye could see, the dark red earth had been turned over and peaked in long, unending rows. I felt this unexplained desire to walk among them, to see the plowed rows up close, to smell the fragrant freshly turned soil. I’d loved spring in my small garden at home, but never seemed to have enough time to devote to it, hiring out much of the work.   

   I briefly thought about pulling over, but now wasn’t the time, especially since I was freshly clean. I vowed to return soon.

Chapter 5
  Texas Tech University is the heart of the city of Lubbock, population 218,000. Spread over 1,840 acres of flat land, it was established in 1923 as Texas Technological College and opened two years later to serve West Texas’ growing population. It was known back then for animal husbandry, agriculture and home economics. In time, other schools were added, and today the university boasts close to 30,000 students studying in hundreds of different disciplines from 13 colleges. Students attend Texas Tech from all over Texas, as well as from across the country and around the world. 

   Texas Tech was our home when we were students—Sharon, Carol and me. It had been my choice of colleges so many years earlier because it was the one state college far enough from Dallas — five to six hours, depending on who was driving — far enough to “get away,” yet close enough so I could go home for holidays. But I was pleasantly surprised when I first saw the city and the campus back in the early 70s. Hundreds of thousands of lush trees had been planted and were thriving, making parts of Lubbock resemble the green acres of my Dallas neighborhood, minus the hills, of course. And the Tech campus, huge in comparison to others I’d visited, was as stately as Dallas’ SMU with decades old trees in abundance. Still is.   

During my four-year stay, the Texas Legislature, at the request of Tech administration and alumni, I suppose, changed the name from Texas Technological College to the more appropriate Texas Tech University, given the size and disciplines taught. There was controversy over the new name, and students and faculty were divided between the names Texas State University (now used for a school located in San Marcos) and Texas Tech University. 

The “Tech” in the name referred to its long history, but it was opposed by many as “tech - no - logical.” I distinctly remember that message being painted in huge letters on a campus construction fence, obviously by protesting students late one night. The “Tech” name prevailed however, and Texas Tech University, as it has been called for decades now, was able to keep the beloved Double T symbol.

   Entering Lubbock, we took a straight shot down Avenue Q, past where the old traffic circle has been converted into a regular intersection with stoplights.    

   “Progress, schmogress,” complained Sharon. “The old circle was fun, especially if it was late at night and we’d downed a few. But boy we were stupid, thinking we were invincible at that age.”

  I agreed, recalling a few adventurous trips of my own around the infamous circle. 

  We continued north on Avenue Q to 19th Street, past Orlando’s Italian restaurant. Sharon said it was still among the best places in the city to dine, so we vowed to visit it soon. Turning west on 19th, we drove past the historic Lubbock High School and another half a mile to the southeast corner of the Tech campus. On an open lawn dotted with huge trees, the old president’s home was set far back from the street. I noticed its west side has what looks like a recent addition. 

For several years now, the large house has served as the Alumni Association headquarters and is used for fancy receptions and gatherings. As enrollment grew, the president moved off campus, and the university now owns a larger house across 19th Street, the south border of the campus, affording a little more privacy for the president and his family. 

A contented sigh escaped my lips as it always did when first sighting my alma mater. There are just so many good memories here. It was where I’d met my life-long friends and earned my independence. I love the almost century-old university.

Sharon directed me to turn north up University Avenue, past our old dorm, Drane Hall. I understand it’s no longer used for student housing. Drane is where we first became friends back in the days when rules were stricter and only girls lived there. Carol, Sharon and I were randomly placed in one of the few rooms large enough for three beds. It was a fortunate happenstance for us. Having a 9 o’clock curfew on weeknights gave us needed time for bonding and allowed us to focus on studies—quiet hours began after 10 p.m. 

Now, I understood, both boys and girls lived in most of the residence halls, sometimes alternating floors. I think the old ways were better for all concerned. There definitely can be too much exposure to the opposite sex. How do they concentrate on studies? Do they even have quiet hours? Is there time to make lifelong friends?

Reaching Broadway Street, I turned left between the stately entrance porticos marking the main access to the university, passing the familiar fountain just beyond the entrance with the towering Texas Tech University seal. We’d been students when it was first built and a favorite prank was to either fill the fountain with soap suds or red dye. I remember one year the fountain’s waters mysteriously turned orange the week the University of Texas Longhorns came to town. The entire campus was in an uproar. 

I drove slowly up the long tree-lined east-west esplanade, past the famous Will Rogers statue. It’s reportedly positioned so the horse’s rear points toward Texas A&M University in Central Texas. Memorial Circle, with its cascading fountains and flags is just beyond, with the north-south esplanade off to the right. Imposing three-story Spanish-Renaissance-style buildings line the esplanades and the circle, defining the university. As I drove the circle, I slowed for a few pedestrians scurrying around campus. 

“I thought it was Spring Break,” I said.

“It is, but not all the kids leave. A lot of studying going on. Only about six weeks until finals,” Sharon said. 

  Directed to park in front of the majestic administration building on the south side of the main circle, I immediately realized where the “you-know-where” was Sharon had mentioned earlier. The Administration Building was the first edifice constructed for the university. An imposing three-stories of ornately carved stone and brick. It’s clay mission-tiled roof tops off the Spanish style and adds needed color - red, of course. 

I’ve seen old black and white photos of the building, alone on the flat prairie land, not a tree or house or building around anywhere. Lots of progress in the past 75 years. Majestic trees surround dramatic arched buildings everywhere, patterned after that first template.

   Rising high above the Administration Building, elaborate two-story, brick-and-stone domed towers mark the two corners of the building as it turns away from the circle into a U-shape, with its opening toward the south. Both stunningly ornate towers house bells that ring out songs for special occasions or celebrate victory at the end of home athletic games. 

   Numerous domed windows on the main building, designed for air flow before the advent of air conditioning, are encased in detailed carved borders of the off-white stone. The stone continues throughout the facade with embellished bas reliefs depicting angels, plant life, columns, and words spelling out not only the disciplines of the university in 1925 - agriculture, manufacturing, homemaking, literature, science and art — but also home, state, church, school and industry, the “five great institutions of democracy in the early 20th century.” The products of those institutions — virtue, patriotism, religion, enlightenment, wealth, and good citizenship — also are engraved and round out the philosophical theme. 

   Ornate seals are incorporated in the early 20th century design for historical reference. It reminds me of the popular amusement park in the Dallas area, Six Flags Over Texas, highlighting the six landowners of Texas — Spain, France, Mexico, the Confederacy, the United States and Texas. The Texas Tech University seal is incised as well, a shield containing symbols for church, home, state and education, quartered by crossing bands of cotton bolls, with an eagle perched on top, wings majestically spread.  
A large archway cuts the bottom floor of the building into two even sections and allows easy passage to the inner sanctum of the courtyard to the south. 

It was through this archway Sharon and I headed with wide grins, stopping in our tracks on the opposite side under an elaborate domed arcade. 

   A 23-foot long concrete bench, in the shape of a Double T, the school’s most recognizable symbol, is sacred to students and alumni alike, tradition dictating only upperclassmen and graduates should rest on the gift from the class of 1931.* 

   We stood just inside the courtyard sheltered by the east and west wings of the three-story stately building, looking at the bench for a long moment, smiling with our individual memories. Keeping our gaze on the monument, we slowly circled in opposite directions, around the intrusive Gov. Preston Smith statue — an unpopular addition since our graduation — and turned back toward the open archway, reverently settling ourselves in the upper inside corners of the main T, laying our arms over the back and clasping hands. 

   “Oh, Maggie,” Sharon sighed, “I’m so happy to have you here with me at last.” 

   I leaned my head back and breathed deeply, soaking up the afternoon’s warm spring sunshine. “I’m happy to be here, too.” 

   After a few minutes of reverent silence, Sharon asked,“Which window is yours?” 

I quickly came back to reality and gulped, my feeling of well-being diminishing slightly as I gazed up at the imposing old building. 

   “Um, it’s there, up in that corner, but it actually faces the flagpoles and Memorial Circle,” I said, pointing west to the third floor where the red and brown bricks make a 45-degree turn. “A little office tucked up in the northwest corner, next to the student ombudsman office and an ancient elevator.” 

   “Really?” said Sharon in surprise. “The president’s office is on the first floor in the east wing, way over there,” she said, unclasping our hands and pointing in the opposite direction.  “I thought the director of communications and marketing would be right next to him.” 

   “I did too, but Mr. Boyle said all those offices were taken, so I, or rather the entire department, is relegated to the other side.”

“Bennett Boyle, the Chief of Staff,” Sharon said with disdain.

  “You know him? What’s he like?” 

  “I thought you met him? Wasn’t he in on the interviews?”

  “He was, but he seemed preoccupied so we never really got a chance to talk. The first interview he just observed. It was kind of creepy. Remember? I told you about it. Never even asked any of the questions. Jonathan Long did the talking.”

“Jonathan Long is his second lieutenant. Him I don’t know much about, but what I do know is favorable. Hmm. I vaguely remember your telling me about Boyle. Tell you the truth, Mags, I was too damned excited thinking about your moving here. I guess I didn’t listen well. Sorry.”

   “That’s all right. In the final interview, Boyle at least said a semi-polite hello, but he barely glanced at me. He had Long show me the office space and introduced my assistant.” 

   “Don’t take it personally. Boyle treats everyone like that. Did you get a load of his hair? Stiff as, um, what’s the old Cowboys’ coach’s name? 

   “Jimmy Johnson?”

   “Right, Jimmy Johnson’s hair. Boyle’s rug is so stiff even a West Texas tornado wouldn’t disturb it.”

   “He wears a rug?” I asked in surprise.

   “No, I don’t think so, but it’s stiff enough to be one. And I know he didn’t purchase those fancy threads here in Lubbock — much too uptown, even for an Aggie.”

   “An Aggie?”

   “Yep. Graduate of Texas A&M. I’d stay out of his way if I were you.”

“Sharon, he’s my boss! How can I stay out of his way?”

    “Well, at least be careful. How much staff did you say you have?”

I sighed as a trickle of doubt was beginning to form, but I couldn’t quit before I’d even started. I’ll just have to take it one day at a time. 

   “Staff? I think there are five of them — two writers, a photographer, the graphic artist and the assistant. Met the assistant briefly and she seemed really nice, professional, but a little apprehensive about another new boss in just under two years. Was my predecessor really that bad?”

   “Well,  everyone referred to her as ‘that bitch in communications.’ ”

   “Oh great, Phelps. You didn't tell me that!”

   “Didn’t I?” Sharon said innocently. “Well, truthfully, I was afraid you wouldn't come,” she cringed, finally meeting my narrowed eyes. “Sorry, again. In the president’s eyes, though, she could do no wrong. Everyone thinks they were sleeping together, but personally, I think she had better taste than that. Anyway, that’s probably one reason why she’s gone. That and the fact that she didn’t have a clue about how to run a communications office. And her office was right next to his. Too close for comfort for President Stone’s wife, I’d say.”

  “What else have you conveniently forgotten to tell me? You’d better tell me everything. Forewarned is forearmed, you know.” 

  “All I know is the gossip, which normally is 80 percent true, but when President Stone came three years ago, the communications director – he’d been here forever – you know, old man Leonard – retired within the year and Stone hired this own wife’s best friend from California. California for God’s sake. Why in the world would someone come to Lubbock from California?”

  “I'm coming from Dallas!” I cried.

  “I know, Maggie, but Dallas is not as hip as California.”

  “Hip? You still use that word, Phelps?"

  “Well, certainly not anywhere except here in Lubbock. Lubbock’s still behind the times in many things, but that’s one of the reasons it’s so great. Anyway, Danielle, from California, was about 40 and a real beauty.” 

  “Oh great, and I’m coming in about 15 years older and 20 pounds overweight with gray hair. Great.”

  “Don’t be silly – you at least know what you’re doing, and you don’t look that old. Besides, climbing up to your new office every day will quickly take away those extra pounds. But I have been meaning to get my hands on that gray hair of yours.”

Sharon playfully reached for my head. I quickly held my hands up for protection and moved out of reach.

  “What? No way, Sharon. My hair stays natural, just the way I’ve always worn it and just the way I’ll always wear it. If God gives me gray hair, who am I to change that?”

  Sharon gazed down at the capri pants I had changed into. “God gave you hair on your legs, but I see you shave that off regularly.”

   I narrowed my eyes at her again and growled. 

  Knowing she’d scored points, my friend smiled. “Okay, we’ll leave that battle for another day. Anyway, Danielle came in with no communications experience that I know of. Rumor has it she was a lingerie model.”


  Sharon nodded. “That’s what they say. Really pissed people off, especially when she was made a vice president by Stone. I’ll bet I can guess just what she was communicating with him. Anyway, they say when Mrs. Stone heard about their rumored affair—and it was just rumored, no proof, mind you—Danielle hustled her cute little butt back to California. And now word is President Stone won’t be here much longer. Tsk … And her best friend, too.”

  Sharon eyed me with feigned suspicion and added, “You know Doug and I are really happy.”

  “I know” — my eyes widened as I understood her implications. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I laughed.  “Besides, you know I’m through with men. There’ll never be another Jim.”

  “Yeah, he was a real keeper,” Sharon said seriously with regret. “Even if he was a lawyer.”

  I shrugged to hide the pain always near the surface, but said teasingly, “And I have gray hair.”

  “Oh, yeah, not Doug’s favorite thing,” Sharon flounced her red and gold streaked hair as she brightened. “But seriously, Maggie, you can’t help but impress them with your genuine communications background. They’re lucky to have you, and your staff will be thrilled you know what you’re talking about.”

  “Well, we’ll see. Just does seem odd my office will be so far away from the president’s. How do they get things done expeditiously?” 

  Sharon blanched mockingly. “Expeditiously? You’re in Lubbock, remember?  All things out here are a little slower ... except the wind, of course.”

   “Oh, right. And just think of all the added exercise I’ll get running ... rather trudging ... up and down from my office to the president’s and back.”

    “Come on, Maggie. Let’s get you expeditiously moved into our guest house at the Nest.”
Check out the Texas Tech campus at their website, Lots of photos are included. The bench can be found here:
Next blog, Monday night, March 21. Yikes! It will be my first day on the new job! Pray for me, please.

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