I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley
Henrietta, Texas, Spring 1962: As seniors, when the fresh air of Spring energized our blood, our thoughts turned lightly to painting our name on the town’s water tower, as is proper.
The culprits were the usual suspects, that is, Eddy Frank, David Gee, Billy Eugene, myself, and as I recall, also Donny Burkman, and Billy Ray. Two cars of us, so we parked in the next block so as not to arouse suspicion.
Earlier in the day, at Moore’s Hardware I’d found a spray can with paint of a delightful orange color. “King George,” I muttered to myself, “will be able to read that without his spectacles.”
We’d driven around first. In theory this was to see where the town cop was. In actual fact, we’d mostly sat in our cars in the bright lights of the Lo’ Boy Drive In, where we drank cokes. However, the cop did drive by, heading out on Highway 287. He’d probably turn around in a mile or so, but that was our chance, so we peeled out from the drive in and sped to the north of town, and parking in the next block, we eased our quiet selves through the darkness, as stealthy as buffaloes.
The water tower sat on a city block all by itself, on a huge bare lot. No fence, just grass and weeds. In the dark, looking up, it looked much larger. And much higher.
“Well,” said mild-mannered Billy Eugene, “Let’s go.”
“Pretty tall,” said David Gee.
“It certainly is tall. Yes it sure is,” said Donny Burkman.
“Well,” said Billy Eugene, “Let’s go.”
So we did.
On the south side, the metal ladder ended some distance from the ground, but with a leg-up from David Gee, and a bit of scramble, up we went, in single file. At first it wasn’t so bad. Kind of neat. You could see over the roofs of the houses! Things looked completely different.
About halfway up, it seemed … not quite so fun.
Looking up, past the boys ahead, the top seemed far away. Looking down, past the boys below, the ground seemed even farther. What if the ladder is weak? What if it came loose? What if Eddy Frank fell on me? What if …
But there was nothing to do, except to keep climbing. The spray can of paint, stuck in my belt, was poking my stomach. My hands began to ache. I whined to myself quietly.
But in a while, the top grew nearer, then close, and then some boys were over the edge onto the catwalk. I came to the edge and carefully clambered onto the catwalk, with hands grabbing my arms and belt. “Whoa!” I said.
The metal catwalk ran around the cylinder of the water tower, with a three-foot rail attached. With any sense at all, a person wouldn’t fall off the catwalk. I said this to myself several times. “Hang onto the rail,” said Billy Eugene. He was normally far less an outlaw than the rest of us, but perhaps this was just his type of crime.
About then, someone spotted the cop car coming up the road, and we all scuttled around to the far side of the tower. There in the dark we hid till he’d passed by. We knew that he’d likely continue north, past the last few houses and past the rodeo grounds, past Petticoat Hill, and past the reservoir, before turning around. “We’ve got ten or twelve minutes,” said Billy Eugene.
So we got busy.
Arraying ourselves on the two sides of the tower most visible from the main road, we began our work. Oddly, nobody had given much thought to what to paint. “Seniors of 62!” someone yelled. “Seniors of 1962!” I cried.
I popped the top from the spray can, held onto the rail behind me, aimed the can, and pressed the button.
A cold spray covered my nose and chin.
In the dark, I peered to see which direction the spray thing pointed, but couldn’t see a thing. I turned the can about half way, tried again, got it sideways and felt the cool spray going off the the right. “Jesus, watch out!” someone growled. I tried turning the can, felt it slippery, felt it slip and spin, heard it clatter and roll, and then a long silence. It was gone.
OK, then. That went pretty well.
In the meantime, other boys had better luck, and it was time to skedaddle.
Carefully we circled to the ladder, and with lots of helping hands getting in the way, each of us climbed over the lip of the catwalk onto the ladder, and in hasty caution, climbed down the ladder, in a stifled horror that any minute the cop could show up with his searchlight.
But he didn’t, and we skulked through the darkness, climbed into cars, and made our getaway. They’d never catch us now, we laughed. Then the others caught sight of my chin.
Haw haw haw haw haw!
I peered into the mirror, and saw in the shifting light of the passing streetlights that my chin was now a bright orange. After riotous laughter at my expense, the others soon became concerned. This orange paint was a definite clue. And my chin was kind of a liability. “You got to clean that off,” said Billy Eugene. “We’ll go to Mitchell’s.”
Mitchell’s Truck Stop, out at the west edge of town, sold gas throughout the night, had bunks and showers for truckers, and ran an all-night cafe. There, after a Saturday Night date, after you’d taken your girl home, you were supposed to go to Mitchell’s Cafe and order Chicken Fried Steak. I know I did. It was always the perfect ending for a perfect evening. It was the spot to be.
Now just in case you ever find yourself at Mitchell’s Truck Stop Cafe, let me make a suggestion: Order the Chicken Fried Steak. You will first receive a bowl of salad, consisting of iceberg lettuce and tomato wedges, and an orange squeeze container. This is garlicky French dressing. Then you’ll get a plate with chicken fried steak, covered with white cream gravy splashed over french fries, and a red squeeze container of ketchup. Squeeze both ketchup and more French dressing over the gravy. Now you’re set. Man oh man!
However, on that night, for the first time, I headed for the gas station instead of the cafe. For the first time, I saw the bathroom in the gas station. Smelled it, too. Whoah!
I tried to wash off the orange paint with soap and water. No good. That was real good orange paint. The night attendant looked at me oddly, but found me some Ajax cleanser. There, with paper towels from the dispenser, water, and generous doses of the abrasive cleanser, I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. And scrubbed. And scrubbed.
My face grew redder and redder, and began to burn, but the orange paint finally showed signs of giving up the battle. After another twenty minutes of painful scrubbing, I resembled a burn victim, but my skin was merely red, not orange.
Now that my fellow criminals no longer feared my being seen, they were in an expansive mood.
“Wanna get some Chicken Fried Steak?” asked Billy Eugene.
This sounded swell.
Next door we trooped, and filled the great big round booth in the corner, and ordered up, laughing and recounting our adventure. The food, when it came, was somehow even better than on other nights. The perfect ending to a perfect evening.
We thought about tomorrow, and how people driving by the north road would look up. They’d see “Seniors of 62” and “Seniors 1962” painted in big letters. Haw haw haw haw haw!
We had made our mark.