Grandpa Ned always said our quiet little country community in northeast Texas was like a stock pond, calm and smooth on the surface so there’s not much to look at, but full of life and death down below.
Center Springs wasn’t much to see back in 1968. I guess what you’d call the hub of our community was an unpainted domino hall squatting between two clapboard country stores at the intersection of Farm to Market Road 197 that ran east and west, and FM 906 that started there and crossed the Lamar County Dam.
A skinny county oil road angled to the northwest behind the domino hall and past the Ordway place, a fine two-story house full of ghosts and bad memories.
Mostly all you ever saw up at the stores were a few farmers loafing either on Uncle Neal’s porch, where we did most of our trading, or under the overhang at Oak Peterson’s competing store that carried the same staples, plus gas.
Houses were scattered beside pastures full of fat cattle every- where along Sanders Creek and the Red River bottoms. Those small scratch farms that survived the Great Depression and hung on tight to the land had been in the same families for generations. A lot of folks lived way back in the woods off dirt and gravel roads. Most waved when they saw you, except for a few old soreheads who turned away so they wouldn’t have to wave back.
Since he was constable of Precinct 3, Grandpa got called out both night and day for more than you’d expect for such a small place. There were family fights, reports of whiskey stills, misunderstandings, cattle on the roads, fistfights, farm accidents, or car wrecks.
Because of a cluster of cinderblock beer joints called Juarez across the river in Oklahoma not five miles away, drunks came weaving through our little community most every week.
Most of the time Grandpa pulled ’em over and hauled ’em to jail in nearby Chisum, the county seat. But sometimes he came along to find cars all tore to pieces and bodies on the road, or in a ditch, or slammed into trees. The ones that made Grandpa the maddest was them that took other good folks with ’em.
It was a car wreck only a few weeks after Reverend King had been laid to rest that tangled Grandpa Ned up in what folks started calling the Lamar County Accident.
Oh, and I’m Top Parker, and this is how we wound up in the middle of all that trouble.…
The scruffy man slipped out of the house in his stocking feet. The eastern sky would soon brighten, but he’d be long gone by then. He’d stood in the shadows for a long time, watching the sleeping couple tangled in the damp sheets and listening to their soft breathing. He sat on the edge of the porch as if he owned the place, pulled on his shoes, and walked in the open until he reached the woods, not caring that he left a trail in the wet grass. It might make it more fun if they noticed.
The Motorola mounted under the Plymouth’s dash squawked. Deputy Anna Sloan’s soft voice cut through the static. “Ned, you there?”
The slender deputy was on desk duty, working dispatch after nearly dying from a gunshot wound early in the fall. It always startled Ned to hear Deputy Sloan on the radio instead of Martha Wells. Martha had worked the day shift on dispatch for thirty years.
Without taking his eyes off the road, Constable Ned Parker leaned over and turned the volume up to drown out the stock report coming through the dash radio. His grandkids in the back seat sat forward to hear. Fifteen-year-old cousins Top and Pepper were so similar in appearance that strangers thought they were twins, though Top was unusually short for his age.
Ned plucked the microphone off the bracket. “Right ’chere.”
“There’s been a bad wreck on the Lake Lamar Dam. Some- body missed the curve and went off the backside.”
“Oh, my God!” In the passenger seat, Ned’s Choctaw wife, Miss Becky, covered her mouth and closed her eyes, saying a quick prayer for those in the car.
Ned stomped the foot-feed and the Plymouth Fury’s big engine roared. They were on Highway 271 and had to loop through Powderly to come in from the east side. “I’m on the way, and don’t you try to come out here. You ain’t healed up enough yet.”
Miss Becky patted the big purse in her lap, as if that would emphasize her words. “Drive careful, Ned. Don’t forget them kids in the back.”
Top frowned in exasperation. “I’m not afraid of going fast.” Ned ignored the boy’s comment as warm, humid air blowing through the open window threatened to snatch the hat off his head. “I knew somebody’d go off that dam, but I didn’t think it
would happen so quick.”
“They got reflectors there.” Top’s near-twin Pepper could never sit back and not be a part of any adult conversation. She held her long brown hair in the slipstream, adjusting the headband with one hand and holding an eagle feather in place. An Indian boy gave it to her in New Mexico and she wore it attached to a headband almost all the time.
“It don’t make no difference. That curve sneaks up on you if y’ain’t payin’ no attention to it.”
She wouldn’t quit. “You expected somebody to drown, first.” The Lake Lamar Dam wasn’t a year old, and the lake itself not quite full. Ned nearly worried himself sick from the time he heard they were going to build it only a mile from his house. His baby brother drowned when they were kids, and Ned never got over his fear of water. It was the thirty-degree bend near the midpoint of the dam that scared him the most, because he was
always afraid someone would miss the shallow angle.
“Y’all hush.” He keyed the mike as he made a U-turn on the highway. “John. You get that?”
Deputy John Washington’s rich, deep voice cut through the static. The huge, almost mythical black deputy was always at Ned’s side. “On the way, Mr. Ned.”
The familiar voice of Sheriff Cody Parker came through. “This is Cody, Ned. I’m almost to Deport. It’ll take me a while to finish up and get back there.”
“All right, then.” Ned slowed to make the left hand turn onto the winding road lined with pine and hardwood trees. Talking softly to himself, he alternately slowed and accelerated, depend- ing on the whim of the two-lane. The lake broke into view. When they passed the recently constructed overlook point cut into the woods, he saw two pickups parked several yards away from the curve at the midpoint in the mile-long dam.
A knot of locals stood in the middle of the road, making no effort to do anything but stare downward off the backside toward the spillway.
That’s when Ned knew it was bad.