By Michael Corcoran
Six miles east of the downtown Beaumont exit, Interstate 10 splits the town of Vidor into near equal portions, like the hyphen between semi and rural. From the overpass at Main St., the town looks like countless other inhabitable freeway exits. Its founding father seems to have been a guy in a blue Suburban who spent ten hours one day with a clicker, counting cars that sped by. At first glance, Vidor’s design pays homage to the great hardened artery above, with franchised winks vying for dollars in transit and accessibility the main consideration.
But far beyond the shade of the freeway, away from the lighted logos and convenience-brokers live the 13,700 citizens of Vidor. From the overpass it appears to be a town of less than 2,000, but there is more to Vidor than that between the off-ramp and the on-ramp.
There are two types of travelers who stop in Vidor: those who have heard of it before and those to whom it is just a small circle on the map in their lap. To the latter group, Vidor is nondescript and wholly unremarkable. The plump cashier at the Gulf station looks skyward for help on her crossword puzzle. Townies sit three in the front of their pickup trucks and cruise for eye contact. Two cop cars are parked in front of Shirley’s Coffee Shop and assistant managers everywhere are wearing white short sleeve shirts and maroon ties the width of fraternity paddles. The making-good-time multitudes merge back on the freeway, completely unaware that they’ve just spent 23 minutes in the most infamous small town in Texas.
When the traveler who has heard about the town takes Exit 861 A, the letters in “Vidor” drip like the title of a movie watched as penance for the sin of coffee after dark. The Houston soul station is twisted into C&W, and gun racks in passing trucks are checked for occupancy. The traveler who has heard of Vidor sees church after church—17 on Main St. alone—and thinks of people in robes. But they are not singing the hymn on page 67. The conjured faceless forms flicker under a fiery cross and coerce Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into endorsing their conspiracy of hatred. Those attuned to Vidor’s notoriety giggle silently when passing the big blue sign that welcomes them to “The Home of Tamara Hext, Miss Texas 1984-85.” The bigger sign invisibly, yet indelibly indicates that they have just entered “The Home of the Ku Klux Klan in Texas.” There is no Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in the town nicknamed “Bloody Vidor.”
I arrived in Vidor with a headful of hearsay about the bedroom community where handguns sleep with Bibles in the nightstand drawer and hooded robes hang in the closet with old military uniforms. I knew of the freeway billboard that warned “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you in this town,” the booths that sold “nigger-hunting” licenses for 50¢ and the sign attached to “Vidor City Limits” which proclaimed “KKK Kountry”. I was told that the KKK had a bookstore right next to City Hall and for the price of eight dollars, a t-shirt announcing “Niggers, We Are Ready!” over a combat motif could be acquired. I drive into the all-Aryan outpost as wide-eyed and jittery as any visitor wired on repute, but unlike most, I don’t merge back onto the right lane to normalcy. I check into an “American-owned” motel and begin a stay of ten days and nine nights, feeling as brave and selfless as a war correspondent. My first night in Vidor I try to have dreams of glory but all I do is toss and slide on a hard bed with a rubber sheet.
In the morning, which sure took its damn time coming, I get up and drive to Burger King for coffee and whatever looks good in the croissant photograph. While I’m seated, making note of the all-white crew, a middle-aged black man walks in. Uh-oh, I think to myself, this poor guy doesn’t realize where he is. I scan the dining area and set on a booth where two trucker prototypes are drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Uh-oh. They see the black man carrying his tray to a table near the exit. He unfolds his paper as the truckers get up and walk towards him. They keep on walking out the door.
I spend my first morning in Vidor navigating much of its 108 square miles. There are churches and trailer homes everywhere and more than a few businesses fly the American flag. Each yard seems to have its own tandem of barking dogs, who rage relentlessly at my red rental car through chain link fences. After two hours, I have made only one entry in my notebook: “inordinate number of red, white and blue basketball nets.” My only photography is of the sign that tells the name of the street which borders the area where Japanese settlers started growing rice in 1907 and where some of their descendants still live. It’s called “Jap Lane.”
I buy gas at a place on the outskirts, cashiered by a youngish woman who still has the Farrah Fawcett wing curls. I ask her if the Klan still has a bookstore in Vidor and she looks at me as if I asked her for directions to the outhouse. “Man, that place has been closed for at least ten years. Most of the hardcore KKK guys have moved to Pasadena,” she says, shaking her head, her hair almost moving. I ask her how Vidor got to be known as a Klan town. “I guess it’s because we got a few people here foolish enough to say ‘We are the Klan.’ Heck, they probably got just as much people in the KKK in Nederland and Lumberton (two syllables: “Need-lin,” “Lumb-ton”) but they get together in a field in the middle of nowhere. In Vidor they have their rallies right off the damn Interstate. Last time they burned a cross it was backed up traffic for miles,” she explains. I ask her if she knows when the next KKK rally is scheduled. She has no idea. “We haven’t heard much from the Klan lately. If they’re still around, they’ve been awful quiet,” she says, then turns around to straighten up the cigarette rack.
Damn. Twelve hours in town, eight of which were with my contacts out, and my hatchet has already metamorphosed into a butterfly net. I find out where the KKK bookstore used to be, on Main between Golden Triangle Auto Parts and a vacant brick building, and soon I’m standing next to a forsaken lot overrun with nappy greenery. All that remains of the structure that marketed racism from 1974-76 are three red, white and blue steps that front the sidewalk. For a few blank moments, I sit on the white one, which has ridges in its thick coat that suggests that it was painted with a broom, then move on down Main to the other side of I-10.
Soon, I stand at another infamous site which has been re-classified from mineral to vegetable. Arnold’s Pool, where a noted integration battle took place in the summer of ’67, is now a field of grass next to the Vidor Health Food and Christian Book Store. The pool was the favorite hang out for generations of Vidorians, then one day a charter bus full of blacks from Beaumont arrived to challenge and change the pool’s “whites only” rule. They had a court order and a passel of journalists, but owner J. C. Arnold still turned them away. The next day the bus returned with a police escort to find Arnold’s Pool filled in with dirt.
The KKK Kountry sign is gone, though it has probably found a nice home up on somebody’s wall, next to a long-expired “nigger-hunting license.” J. C. Arnold has also expired, though his name will long live in the gossip of townsfolk who never tire of telling and hearing about that night in ’64 when George Jones came home from a tour to find J. C. Arnold “visiting” Mrs. Shirley Jones at the Jones’ Rhythm Ranch on Lakeview DrIve. The story goes that George chased his business partner (as part-owner of George Jones’ Chuck Wagon restaurant on Main) all over his house with a cracking gun and that one of the bullets found Arnold’s butt. Arnold denied that he was hit, as did the former Mrs. Jones, who is now the recently-widowed Mrs. Arnold. But a Dr. Smith claims to have treated Arnold that night and most of the town sides with the spicier account.
Another ambiguity in Vidorian lore is the legendary billboard that kept black asses away from sunsets in this town. Some recall it emphatically, even remembering that it was black letters on white and the only word capitalized was the first one, but many more will tell you it was a myth; it never existed.
Leroy Henry, 47, doesn’t remember the billboard, and as a black growing up in Beaumont he’s someone who would. He became aware at a young age, however, of the danger of being black and in Vidor at the same time. “If a black man got a flat tire driving through Vidor, he rode the rim to the end of town before pulling over to change the tire,” he recalls. In Oct. ’85, Henry accepted a promotion that he knew would be as perilous as any assignment he had received as a Marine from ’60-’64: he became the new assistant postmaster of Vidor. Though several blacks work at North Star Steel, just across the Neches River from Beaumont, the plant is miles from downtown Vidor and not really part of the town in spirit.
Henry’s new workplace was just off the main drag and his duties involve every one of its citizen. When his tenure began, the post office received threats, both bomb and miscellaneous, so four video cameras were installed on its roof. Two postal inspectors escorted the 21-year p.o. veteran to his new job. “It was rough going for a couple of months, but I don’t have the kind of fear that would make me change my mind (about transferring),” Henry tells me in the lounge of the Vidor post office. “I was right all along, though, and nowadays I have no problems whatsoever. People don’t even look at me funny anymore,” he says. In Sept. ’87 Henry suffered a heart attack, but three months later he was already back at work. His coworkers, many of whom threatened to quit when he was hired over a white man, warmly welcomed him back. “Things are starting to change a little in Vidor because of the kids. When they go out into the world, they don’t want to be ashamed to tell people where they’re from,” Henry offers. The video cameras are still on the roof, but they haven’t been turned on in almost three years.
In Vidor there are 36 churches, six public schools, two banks, two savings and loan associations, two funeral homes, two parks, four physicians, two motels and an 18-hole golf course. It has 17 police officers and a volunteer fire department with 7 vehicles.
Vidor also has a smallish library two blocks off Main. Though there aren’t any books that tell the history of the town, librarian Theo Houston is happy to give ma Xeroxed sheet on which 380 years are typed and single-spaced. The area, which averages 10 feet above sea level, was first inhabited by the Attacapas Indians, who believed that their ancestors came from the sea. After reading that the first white men in the region were French Traders, I discover that the town was named after C. S. Vidor in 1905, when he replaced virgin pine and oak forests with lumber camps, saw mills and a railroad line. Today, C. S. is better known as the father of pioneer film-maker King Vidor, whom the flyer correctly credits with The Fountainhead, yet wrongly identifies as the director of Birth of a Nation. That 1915 epic by D. W. Griffith revolutionized the motion picture industry with its
spectacular scope and advances in cinematography, editing and set design. It’s also responsible for the revival of a vigilante organization that died out soon after Reconstruction: the Ku Klux Klan. Millions of moviegoers saw Klansmen portrayed as proud, brave heroes who return from defeat in the Civil War to find their homeland overrun by black renegades whose “newfound freedom has turned to rude insolence.” Shots of helpless white virgins being carried off by savagely salivating black bucks (Griffith had the actors swill hydrogen peroxide during pursuit) were undercut with scenes of newly elected Negroes swigging whiskey, eating chicken and propping their bare feet atop their desks in the legislature. Today, Birth of a Nation is known as much for its laughable racist propaganda as for its brilliance in style and technique. Still, 73 years, ten Presidents and two World Wars later, there are some Americans who don’t find Griffith’s portrayal of blacks to be distorted. They’d stand up and cheer their Aryan brethren against the black militia just like audiences did in 1915.
I tell the librarian that King Vidor didn’t direct Birth of a Nation and she says she’s pretty sure he did. When I tell her I’m absolutely 100% positive that he didn’t, she asks, “Well, who did then?”
Enter the Grand Dragon
If A. W. Harvey were ten years older or ten pounds lighter, he’d weigh his age. At 78, his small, slightly-stooped body is slowly falling apart. His eyes squint to focus and his teeth look like yellowed shrapnel thrown against magnetic gums. “What did you say your name was?” he asks, then moves hi lips along with mine as I answer. “How do you spell that?”, he wants to know and after I string the letters together for him three times, he tosses them around in his dental ruins as pawnbroker without a scale maneuvers a gold class ring before making an offer. Finally satisfied that mine is not the name of a descendant of those who killed Christ, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, realm of Texas, heads for the front door of his simple brown house and motions for me to follow. A rooster scatters from his approach. The yard is littered with cats and indiscernible electrical parts. The carport to the right is filled with the guts and frames of a hundred dead TV sets. We stand at the entrance for a few minutes as A. W. unwinds a length of clothesline from a nail sticking out of the screen door. “We have about 70 cats and if I don’t tie up the screen door they drive me and my wife crazy going in and out all day long,” he explains.
On the front door, white ink on black, is a sign that asks “Who Needs Niggers?” Inside, Mrs. Harvey sits in a recliner with her swollen ankles elevated and a kitten asleep in her lap. On the wall behind her are two rifles; on one side of them is an American flag and a Confederate flag sewn together. There’s barely an inch of bare wall space in the living room, which smells like a pet store after a three-day holiday. There are three or four poster-sized drawings with Klan motifs, including one that spoofs an Uncle Sam recruitment. Uncle Klan points out from the drawing: “The KKK wants you.” Framed color photographs of national KKK leaders like Bill Wilkinson, Robert Shelton and James Venable are spaced around other white supremacist knick-knacks like a black tie with three white K’s down the front of it, various NRA patches, anti-Kennedy bumper stickers and an old photograph showing black kids hurriedly taking off their clothes next to a swimming pool. It is captioned “Last one in is a nigger.” Prominently placed is a large photograph of thirty or so hooded Klansmen in front of a burning cross. In the middle is A. W. Harvey, his smiling face proudly uncovered.
“A lot of people think I don’t like the black man,” Harvey starts, “but I really don’t dislike blacks. I just don’t want them forcing themselves on me. If you let them get a foot in the door, well they’ll break the whole door down.”
I asked him how Vidor got to be known as the home of the Klan. “Vidor is where the groundwork was laid down for the Klan in Texas. It’s where the leaders are from and where, I guess, most of them still live,” he said, then refused to speculate on the number of Vidorians currently enmembered in the “Invisible Empire.” One figure to go on is 100, the votes Harvey received when he ran for mayor in ’85 (incumbent Dru Stephenson won with 534 votes). But then, that follows the assumption that Harvey’s organization is the only Klan in Vidor and every Klansman turned up at the polling place. Besides Harvey’s “Original” Ku Klux Klan, there are two other Klaverns in Vidor, as well as the White Chamelions and either the Aryan Nation or Aryan Brotherhood; Harvey’s not sure. “It’s whatever Louis Beam was head of,” Harvey says, then relates how Beam wanted him to join. “I went to one of their rallies in Houston and they were all wearing swastikas and I told Louis ‘no way’. I fought Hitler in the 40’s and I’d fight him now,” the retired electrician states proudly.
Though Harvey’s Klan meets regularly, always opening and closing with a prayer, the last public Klan rally was on Dec. 3, 1983. Around 75 Klansmen started the day by marching in Beaumont to “educate the white people of the dangerous position we face as a race,” their flyer trumpeted. Later, in Vidor, the education evolved into a celebration that “Vidor is a white city and has remained white because of the Klan.” According to reports in various newspapers and local newscasts, the KKK ladies auxiliary auctioned off cakes, children played and giggled and at night a 15-ft high cross was lit at the Vidor Community Park, just off I-10. When the very next issue of the twice-weekly Vidorian came out three days later, however, there was not a single word about the event. If any of the town’s respected businessmen and community leaders were on hand at all it was as detached observers.
The last time a City Councilman spoke at a Klan function, in Aug. ’78, he was asked by fellow Councilmen to resign. I tell Harvey that none of the Vidorians I had talked to so far had any good words for the KKK. “Anyone who tells you they don’t want the Klan in Vidor is probably lying,” Harvey retorts. How is the Klan good for Vidor? “We don’t just work against niggers taking over. I just got people after people that calls me all the time about things,” Harvey says, citing a recent example. “Some woman calls me and says her husband gets his check and stops off at some beer joint and spends all his money and comes home and beats her and the kids, and I got into that. I told him that if he’s any kind of man at all he’ll take care of his family first and not leave them at the mercy of the community. And if there’s something left over, well then he can go to a beer joint. You’d be surprised at how fast some people will change their ways if you just talk to them and shame them about some of the stuff they do.”
Harvey mentions watching Donahue earlier in the day and given the chance to lambast the Grand Dragon of media liberals, he lightly dismisses Phil as “someone who has different opinions than mine.” He says that the Klan would stop any and all blacks from moving to Vidor because “the blacks that would come over to Vidor would be instigators and troublemakers. They’d come here to crash in and control Vidor. The minute they got here they’d say ‘Well, we got to have so many on the school board, we got to have so many on the City Council, now we’re going to run one for mayor.’ There’s no reason black people would want to live in Vidor except to destroy the white group.” When I ask Harvey why the Klan doesn’t bother the hundred or so Hispanics who live in their town, he says “the Mexicans that’s living here aren’t givin’ us no static.” What if an upstanding and popular black family, the Huxtables on The Cosby Show, wanted to move to Vidor to escape the blight of Beaumont? Would their houses be burned down?, I ask. “Who? The Whatstables?” I explain that The Cosby Show is one of the top-rated TV shows. “I don’t watch too much TV anymore. All it is nowadays is sex, sex, sex,” he says, “plus I don’t have the time. My wife’s an invalid and from when she wakes up until about 10:30 at night I have to give her various sorts of medication. I also do all the cooking and whatever cleaning gets done.”
The longer we talk, the more Harvey wiggles out of the shackles of moderation and into the KKK cloak of slurs, misinformation, stereotypes and outrageous scenarios that ultimately serve as the best argument against the theory of white supremacy. After both sides of my 90-minute cassette are filled with the views of this former Methodist minister candidate from Meridian (60 miles northwest of Waco), he walks me to the driveway. I ask him if I can take a photo of the cross in his yard, which he lights each night with Christmas tree bulbs. “Sure,” he says, “do you want me to stand next to it?” He puts his arm around it and smiles as if it’s his wife and they’re on a beach somewhere; young and in love and thinking it will always be like this.
Has Vidor changed?
The horn signals it’s half-time at the Vidor High School gymnasium where victory for the home team is already out of the question. Central High from Beaumont, whose players are all black, built up an early 20-point lead that the slower and shorter Pirates valiantly but unsuccessfully tried to whittle away. With both teams back on the floor soon, warming up for Massacre, Pt. II, the opposing pep squad faces each other with the length of the court between them. “We’ve got spirit, yes we do, we’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you!” The Vidor cheerleaders translate with most of their delegation joining in. Central’s racially mixed pom-pomsmiths return the cheer, though with their outnumbered fans it sounds more like an echo than a challenge. Eager to exploit their advantage, Vidor delivers the chant louder with each successive volley, parents, teachers and even self-conscious teenagers adding their voices. Gamely, Centralites keep the pep challenge going, but it sounds like a shouting match between Herman Milquetoast and Ethel Merman.
Luckily, Central is saved by the horn that announces the break is over and Vidorians stomp and hoot for the last time that night. I’m in the bleachers as far away from the school spirit pulse points as one can sit. The three rows ahead of me are dominated by six or seven men in their mid-thirties to late-forties. When the black ref whistles a Vidor player for charging, one of the guys yells “Hey ref, your son wasn’t set!” and his friends yuck it up in the spirit of good ol’ boy-manship. Within five or ten minutes, though, it becomes pointless to refute any calls. Central scores each time they go down the court, taking it to the hoop with authority, while Vidor is lucky to even get off a shot. Their perimeter passes are regularly picked off and returned to the Central basket with a slam.
At the start of the of the fourth quarter, my gimme-capped neighbors huddle around and pass dollars to one of their own and tell him something like “three minutes.” One guy says “a minute and a half” and the others decide that it has to be rounded off to a full minute. “OK, I say one minute,” he tells the man holding the money. Forty or fifty seconds into the final period, a Central player springs from a crouch and intercepts a pass near mid-court. Three dribbles later he’s airborne at his own basket, catapults the ball from behind his head through the iron circle. Choonk! The guy who bet a minute jumps up and cheers while his friends double-check the time. He won six dollars for guessing that the next dunk would come one minute into the final period.
When the buzzer sounds, the board reads Central 80, Vidor 35, but the game really wasn’t that close. Players from each team shake hands, friends and family of the winners hug and congratulate them and the embarrassed Pirates quickly retreat to their locker room to avoid the well-meaning consolatory cheerfulness that stings like iodine on their open wound. One of Central’s white cheerleaders put her arms around the sweaty waist of her team’s star forward and he pulls her head close to him as they walk toward two waiting buses- one for the pep squad and one for the players and coaches. Just a week earlier, Central’s cheerleaders had their bus stopped and pelted with rocks in Port Arthur after their team lost a close game against an all-black Lincoln High team, but tonight
there’s no trepidation in their celebration. A police car is parked alongside the first bus, waiting to escort the team and cheerleaders back to Beaumont. The officer stands at the gym door, joking with the announcer and official scorer about the lopsided game. A mother of one of the Central cagers asks her son how soon he will be ready to be picked up, gathers her three younger children and heads them off to their car on the other side of the parking lot. It’s January 15th. If he had lived,
Martin Luther King Jr. would be 69 today.
Three days later, on the Monday when Dr. King’s birth is officially celebrated, I am in the offices of the Vidor Independent School District, which oversees six schools and 5921 students, none of which are black. Underlining Vidor’s tag as a bedroom community, VISD is the town’s leading employer, with 672 paychecks emanating from its offices. Classes are in session this sorta national holiday, in fact it’s a rather dubious occasion. Community Education director Emily Wetherly is quick to point out that schools will also be open on Memorial Day and President’s Day, with the three non-holidays making up for three extra days off during Thanksgiving. Then she politely excuses herself and returns with the “new” superintendent, now in his second year at Vidor, Robert Brezina.
The firm handshake and disarming smile belong to the oldest of one of the six football-playing brothers from the University of Houston. “I played on Bill Yeomans’ first UH team in 1959, and from then until 1972 there was always a Brezina on his team”, the 46-year-old product of Louise, TX announces, “and my son Robert Jr. played on Coach Yeomans’ very last team in ’85.” After a year in the NFL on Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and one in the AFL with the Houston Oilers, the running back became a football coach, teacher, and finally superintendent. I fish for Lombardi-isms, but Brezina doesn’t bite. Instead he changes his expression to one curtaining serious thought and heads me to his immaculate office. He’s already had a rough day; earlier he ordered his first expulsion in Vidor, to a 16-year-old who possessed six marijuana cigarettes at school.
As the superintendent of the nearby Hamshire Fannett school district for seven years, Brezina took the Vidor position fully aware of its students’ reputation as poor white trash racists. “That’s the perception that people in surrounding areas have of Vidor kids and one of my top priorities since coming here is to try and change that misconception,” Brezina states, then throws up an example of how his charges can be hurt by their town’s bad rap: “Let’s say a boy from Vidor goes to the beach where he meets a nice girl and starts up a conversation. When she asks him where he’s from and he tells her, she says ‘Vidor? My parents told me I can never go out with someone from Vidor!’ and that’s the end of that. But if people got to really know them they’d realize that they’re good kids. Of course there are always going to be a few exceptions, but for the most part our students are as smart, friendly and spirited as any I’ve known in the past 22 years.
“The high school is the center of the community,” Brezina states, adding “which isn’t really so prevalent in towns as big as ours.” In southeast Texas, football is religion; in Vidor it’s bigger than Jesus, though there’ll be no cocky John Lennon in shoulder pads to make that claim. The Pirates, the only all-white 5A team in the state, haven’t won the district since 1978, but they’re always #1 tops in attendance per capita. Even during a 22-game losing streak, which stretched from ’81-’83, an empty seat in Pirate Stadium was rare as high fives on the Vidor sidelines. “Sometimes on away games there are more people in the stands from Vidor than there are for the home team,” according to Brezina.
In Vidor, “extra-curricular” means “open to the public” and school programs are vital limbs, to be amputated only when budgetary gangrene leaves no alternative. When the high school needed enlargement in 1982, the white-knuckled (from clenching their tight fists) City Council unanimously earmarked $3 million for the project. The gavel of austerity also pounded loose $7.7 million for the construction of the Vidor Middle School, which boasts a synthetic basketball court, carpeted hallways, an elaborate library, a state-of-the-art auditorium, a twelve-foot high designer clock, 50’s-chic water fountains and even a stylish student lounge of ornate chairs and glass-top coffee tables, sunken under a mammoth stairway. Designed by a noted Houston firm, this school for fifth and sixth graders is more likely to reside in the pages of Architectural Digest, than in “the home of the Ku Klux Klan.”
To Vidorians, their schools are not just an investment in their future, but a source for enlivenment in the present. School-related activities are an entrepreneurial sure thing in this community where families sit together not only on pews, but on stadium benches and in auditoriums. Even in the late
60’s, when America’s dinner tables were ideological battlefields and the kids were advised to never trust anyone over 30, the Generation Gap in Vidor was a slighter crevice than a crack in the sidewalk. In front of City Hall is a monument to the soldiers who never returned home from Vietnam. It was built in 1969, years before our nation’s leaders would similarly honor the dead from that untrendy war. By ’69, eight Vidorians had given their lives for their country in Southeast Asia and each of their names is inscribed in the granite, followed by two newer names and about two feet of blank space. Set into the bottom of the memorial are those responsible for it: the Vidor High School class of ’69.
Though the plentiful satellite dishes and M-TV have exposed Vidor’s youth to new styles, new sounds and new sensibilities, the apple still does not generally fall far from the tree. And though several children of Klansmen belong to the Junior KKK, they are far outnumbered by the Vogue Fashion Fair, one of the most popular talent and fashion shows, five years running. Co-sponsored by the VISD and Cindy’s Fabrics and Bridal Boutique, the Fair is basically a show of formal gowns that have been made from Butterick patterns (the numbers are in the program), interspersed with musical performances by the VHS
Madrigals and eight or so student crooners. Half of the
soloists are less than a third of the 14 Packard children,
Vidor’s version of the Osmonds. The 30 or so models are
predominantly in the 14-16 age group, though a few older women walk the fashion plank during the “Daytime and Career” segment. The six or seven participating boys are wearing tuxedos from Cindy’s; the girls are almost entirely in strapless gowns that softly triangulate from the waist. “Simply elegant” is the catchphrase of the day from announcers Jimmie Smith of Beaumont’s KD-98 and Cindy of Cindy’s. About halfway through the three-hour proceedings, Smith cracks a joke pertaining to George Jones’ alcohol bouts, not realizing that Jones’ sons still live in Vidor and one of their wives is sitting in a sportswear booth near the back of the auditorium. Dead silence. Smith realizes that something is wrong, they laughed at his other bad jokes, after all, so he tries to back-pedal into their favor again. “I kid George about his drinking because that’s all in his past now. One thing he still is is the greatest country singer in the world, right?!”, he accents with a hoot. The crowd claps politely, but unforgiving.
Smith yields the microphone to one of the Packard boys for what I incorrectly assume to be the grand finale: a twenty-minute version of “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” as each and every young model takes a solo twirl down the runway and returns to semi-circle a centerpiece of flowers and pastel balloons. After Packard croons “If you see her, say I’m sorry, sorry” for about the 48th time, I head for the exit to beat the traffic. I’m almost out the door when Cindy announces that it’s time for the moment we’ve all been waiting for, and the pianists starts playing the Wedding March. From the back of the stage comes the bride, or at least the mock bride, as the 300 or so on hands clap furiously. When she reaches her ersatz husband-to-be, the accompanist throws in a few bars of the Twilight Zone theme, everyone laughs, especially the dozen or so men in the audience and then it’s quickly back to the Wedding March. As I leave the confines of the Vidor Middle School, I circumnavigate the Madrigals, who are finalizing their choreography on “Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye”
They move stiffly, without feeling, as if their bone marrow has been replaced by pipe cleaners. These are the kids that parents in nearby communities warn their children about. Begrudgingly, understandingly, they are the victims of a stereotype that fits only a minute percentage of their fellow Vidorians.
Though the white-robed, pointy-hooded demon at the edge of town is responsible for much of the ill regard towards Vidor, the town also suffers from prejudice as the southeast Texas counterpart to Fresno, Cleveland or Burbank. Like those nationally-maligned burgs, Vidor is painted as a Podunk haven for boring, dim-witted hayseeds who lock their keys in their trucks and tell the locksmith to hurry because it’s starting to rain and the windows are rolled down. The person who has probably done most to peg the Vidor type in stereo is radio announcer and columnist Gordon Baxter, a regional institution whom many in the region think belongs in an institution. For more than 30 years, Vidor has served as the posterior in countless Baxter jokes, though the opinion-smith who first called it “Bloody Vidor” (because its frequent train-into-car wrecks) claims no malice. “Some of my best friends live in Vidor,” he says, “and most everyone there realizes that it’s all just good-natured hoo haw.” He cites the time in 1975 when- at the urging of then Superintendent H. J. Cothern, he pulled punches aimed at Vidor’s mid-section. “Doctor Cothern said some of the students were upset and hurt from some of the things I had been joking about, so out of respect to him I laid off for a while,” Baxter recollects, “but after about two weeks I started getting calls from people in Vidor wanting to know why I wasn’t
making fun of them anymore. They missed the jabs.” Baxter also remembers an earlier message he received from a few Vidorians after he attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968 and praised Dr. King in his next column. In his mailbox was a calling card which read: “you have just been paid a friendly visit by the KKK, would you like a real visit?” Soon after, the Klan called Baxter and asked him to plug their upcoming rally –all was forgotten, except for something Baxter would tell me 20 years later: “when it comes to ‘niggers’ these people are not joking around.”
Vidor is one of five Texas cities whose population doubled from 1960 to 1970 and the only one of those that repeated the feat from 1970 to 1980. Though North Star Steel brought industry and 630 jobs to the area in 1976, Vidor is still primarily a bedroom community for folks where bacon is brought home from Beaumont, Port Arthur (22 miles away) and Orange (13 miles away). Before the city incorporated in 1960, Vidor’s attraction was as a sanctuary from “blacks and taxes.”
Twenty-eight years after the city taxes were implemented, however, the influx continues, though it’s a mere trickle of its former gush. Hard luck has become the only luck at all in the oil dependent Golden Triangle and the little white circle in the middle feels the crunch. Unemployment and its stubborn cousin, self- employment, have risen wildly; plywood has usurped glass in countless store-fronts on Main St.; the sandpits of Vidor and adjoining Rose City idly testify to the state’s construction moratorium; and Moses would be no match for the sea of red ink that threatens to drown many of the Vidor businesses. All it takes is a drive through a few neighborhoods during the traditional Wednesday garage sales to see that this is a town struggling to make ends meet. It’s nearly impossible to go more than three blocks without passing at least one yard full of clothing, furniture and a black and white TV that either “works!” or “needs fuse.”
Gordon Baxter needs to update his four-point checklist for determining Vidorian housewives. There is still “a disabled car in the driveway, a major appliance in the yard, a dog asleep in their bed”, but they’re not always “barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.” Sometimes they’re barefoot and pregnant in the front yard. And it takes them at least six rings to get them to the phone on Wednesdays. One of the few businesses in town that is having a good year is BF’s Bargain Shop, which looks, from the outside, like something in which the Japanese population of Stockton lived in 1943. The long, wooden, chipped-gray façade may suggest internment, but the owners have done well mining the common ground between folks who’ve been forced to sell their in-essentials and those who need a few things, but can’t afford them new. During its weekly Friday night auction, the store moves more merch than the Wal-Mart down the street.
Packed into fifteen rows of ancient wooden seats that were salvaged from the old movie theatre are 108 people bidding for bargains and making auctioneer Tommy Ard work harder for his 15% than he wants to. I am sure of the attendance number because when I sign in at the cluttered desk that reduces the width of the entrance from twelve feet to four feet I have given a computer card with “109” written on it in blue marker. Ard, who comes to Vidor from nearby Silsbee every Friday, oversees his attentive congregation from a white podium on a three-foot platform. Seated next to him is a woman half his age whose radical nonchalance screams out that she would rather be anywhere doing anything instead of in Vidor recording highest bids. Standing below them are an older gentleman in overalls and an eager lad of 12 or 13 who takes turns displaying the items as they are auctioned.
The old guy holds up a lamp with a lime green shade, lifting it below the base and slowly rotating it. His eyes regard it as an elegant creation; he’s done this before. Ard starts it off at ten dollars and a couple of men standing off to the side guffaw in disbelief; they’ve done this before. “Well, whaddaya think, then whaddaya think? Whosa gonna start it, whosa gonna start it?” Ard quickfires. From off to the side comes “three dollah.” “Three dollah?”, Ard evens the disbelief score. “What watermelon truck did you come into town on?”
Everyone laughs and a few are probably reminded of the auction a few weeks earlier when a big black man showed up. The woman at the front desk recalls how they all figured he was just somebody passing through who didn’t know any better, “then we come to find out he’s lived in Port Arthur all his life and knew exactly what he was doing.” She goes on to tell me how she was out shopping the
day after the integrated auction when the wife of a Klansman “grabbed me by the arm so hard it left a bruise.” When Mrs. Klan asked her what the hell she was doing letting niggers in her auction, she told her she had to let them in; it was against the law if she didn’t. “I don’t know what they expect me to do,” she exasperates, as Ard pleads for a bid of three fifty.
The next morning, the owner of another second hand store offers a similar story. She had an old Pontiac Bonneville for sale in the front of her shop on the I-10 feeder road. After a few fruitless weeks, she finally sold it to a black man from Orange. Three or four days later, she was face to face
with two KKK reps who did not care that the brakes were shot andthe car jiggled when it was driven faster than 30 MPH. “Theysaid, ‘we don’t cotton to niggers’”, she relates in a voice thatowes royalties to Tugboat Annie. “I told ‘em, ‘Hell, I don’t want to live with them neither, but I’ll take their money.”
Maybe I mean Houseboat Annie. It’s that character from the Tammy movies. “They started to tell me how I shouldn’t even take their money,” she continues in that voice you could hang wet cloths on to dry, “and I said ‘Listen. You give me $250,000 and I’ll give you this shop and everything in it and you can sell it to whoever you want to, but until then I’ll run my business any damn way I feel like it.” Imagine Shelley Winters with a Southern twang and you’ve got it.
It’s Saturday night in Vidor. The Skating Palace on HWY
12 is hopping and there’s also a full house of teenagers at the Hot Dog Factory, which is actually a front for a pool hall and video arcade. Across the track, from dry precinct 4, business at The Fall’s liquor store is brisk, in both their booze and video rental departments. I’m in line behind a guy with a fifth of Jack Daniel’s who is trying to decide if he’s already seen Easy Money, the Rodney Dangerfield movie. “Is that the one where he goes back to college?” He asks the pretty girl at the counter. “No, that’s Back to School”, she says. “Is this the one where he’s trying to inherit a bunch of money? Yeah, Easy Money, that’s the one this is,” he says handing it back to her, “I done seen that one. Hey, do y’all have any new Godfather movies?” Thankfully, the other line clears out and I switch over and check out just as I hear the guy who was in front of me ask, “Is this the one where they shoot the guy in the eye?”
When darkness hits, it does so with a screech and a roar as the favorite past time of hometown
adolescents, “dragging Main” begins. For hours they go up and down the essential three miles of Main St., from train track to train track, in their jacked-up Camaros and pick-up trucks with tinted windows, looking for something, anything to fulfill the celebratory responsibility at hand. They duck into the
McDonald’s drive-through with their radios on so loud that they have to scream for their supper, then cruise on over to the Hot Dog Factory where they sit in their cars and eat and wait for those girls in the yellow Mustang to glide by. Later, 30 or 40 of them congregate at the crater-infused parking lot where the movie theatre (“the-a-tre”-three syllables) used to be until it was torn down soon after projecting Vidor’s last picture show in 1963. 25 years later, the ghost of the Leon Theatre still mysteriously draws kids to the spot where many of their parents first held hands; where their mothers pretended that the movie scared them more than it really did. Today’s teens stand around next to open car doors and talk, smoke and occasionally bend into their vehicles to do something that’s not to be seen by cops but not
to be missed by their peers. I swoop close enough to the tailgate party to hear that all radios are tuned to the same station and that Bon Jovi sounds much better that way.
Across town, the weekly dance at VFW Post 8246 is well under way. The sign with the flashing red arrow promises country and western music from 9pm-1am and at 9:10 I wheel into the lot where at least 75 cars are already parked and sounds of Jesse Something and the Something-aires softly flutter and quicken the gait of an older couple who arrive right after me, but move to the entrance long before I do. Lateness is not fashionable in this town hosting four hours of night life each week.
Outside the entrance, a couple in their late 30’s/ early 40’s face off; she in jeans so tight that she’d have to push the seat all the way back to be able to drive, and he under a cowboy hat the size of a pitcher’s mound. “He was too staring at you, and right in front of me”, he says and starts back into
the dance. She grabs his arm and holds on as he tows her about
ten feet and suddenly stops and pivots. “I never even saw that
guy before in my life” she says “and how the hell do you know he was staring at me? What do you expect him to do, look at the ceiling all night?” He just shrugs her hand away and raises an index finger in warning. “OK maybe he just wanted to see what brands of pants you’re wearing. But, I’m gonna keep an eye on that jerk and if he don’t watch himself instead of you, he’s gonna be getting’ a good view of this” he says as he puts his square fist an inch from her make-up. To hear all this, I stand at the entrance and read each of the four or five hand-printed signs about six times. I follow them inside and give four dollars to a small old man in a VFW hat covered with badges and pins. A policeman stands in back of him against the wall with a “fifteen minutes down, three hours and 45 minutes to go” expression. Knowing that I stick out like Lew Alcindor in his eighth grade class picture, I seek out a dark corner, but the place is lit up like a movie set. When Jesse Something botches the words to “Jambalaya”, I almost expect someone to yell “Cut” and some guy in a beret to jump from the wings and say “It’s ‘Goodbye Joe, we gotta go’, not ‘I gotta go’. ‘We gotta go’, you got it? OK, from the top. Places everyone!”
Under the glare I instantly notice four things: 1) At 32, I’ve just brought the average age down to 49;
2) I’m the only guy in the place not wearing either a cowboy, military or officer’s hat; 3) besides two of the band members, I’m the only guy with long hair; and 4) they’re both wearing cowboy hats. I nervously tap my shoes and ask the guy at the door where they pay phone is. Luckily it’s in an area where I was four dollars richer the last time through, so I get a cosmetic hand stamp and head out at a pace that suggests my first words into the receiver would be “I’m here, where the hell are you?”
I drive about a mile down the road and cross the railroad tracks to buy beer. There are three mini-marts within a few hundred yards and I choose the Country Pantry because there are several pickups in front and I feel guilty about wimping out at the VFW. I head back to the beer department and disguise my snooping as comparison shopping.
A man of about 40, with longish, dirtyish hair that gravity parts, reaches in and pulls out a six-pack of Bud. Halfway to the checkout counter, he suddenly stops and heads back. Trading the 12-ouncers for 16- ounce cans, he explains to me, “I told the ol’ lady I’d only drink a six-pack tonight.” I also pick out a six-pack of tall boys, though the iconoclast in me opts for Miller, and follows him in line. While the cashier looks for a pack of Benson and Hedges Lights for a kid in a letterman’s jacket with a band
patch, I ask the obedient husband if there is anything to do in Vidor on a Saturday night. “There ain’t no bars here, but you can have a few beers and dance at the VFW tonight”, he offers, then realizing that I don’t look like the VFW type, adds “or you could find something to do in Beaumont. Watch yourself there, though. There ain’t a weekend goes by without a few 7-11’s getting robbed and people getting’ shot for their wallets.” The cashier stands in front of the kid in the band with her empty palms outstretched. “Give me a pack of Marlboros then”, he sighs, and is soon out the door.
Vidorians talk a lot about the crime rate in Beaumont. It’s one way of justifying their peaceful co-existence with several white supremacist organizations. The Klan is far preferable to “what they have in Beaumont”, which is ten- year olds selling crack on street corners, 24-hour stores conveniently robbed every night, schools where switchblades are more important THAN slide rules, rapists on every bus who get off when your wife, daughter or sister does, and elderly couples waking up in heaven while young blacks use their credit cards to buy big orange hats, Zodiac jogging suits and radios the size
of luggage. To many Vidorians, Beaumont is blacks, blacks are crime and if the Klan keeps blacks off the streets of Vidor, well, who would care if they marched up and down Main St. in crotchless purple robes from Frederick’s of Birmingham? Hell, if not for the Klan, Walmart’s would sell ski masks year round.
Crime is on the rise in Beaumont, with eight serious crimes per 100 people in 1986, but Vidor isn’t much better, reporting five serious crimes per 100 people during the same time period. According to police sergeant Ken Ray, “One of our biggest problems in Vidor is convincing the people that they do indeed have a crime problem.”(Note: after this was written Vidor resident David Harris became famous as the true killer in The Thin Blue Line.)
On Sunday morning, the mean streets of Vidor bring families
from their homes to those of God, the Almighty. There they
give thanks for His gifts; the wonderful schools, beautiful
parks, loving children and the privilege of living in the best
damn country in the world. Then they will open their eyes,raise their heads, get up off their knees and sing the hymn on page 67. They will sing loudly in their best clothes and their clumsy voices will meld to make a joyful noise. Their assistant postmaster will also be in his best clothes, together with his family, singing the hymn on page 67. But he will be six miles away. It is inconceivable to Leroy Henry that he will ever be able to sing with his family in the town where he works. “I wouldn’t move to Vidor. That would be out of the question,” he remarks with a nervous chuckles. “Uh-uh, nooooo way.”
There won’t be any black people living in Vidor any time soon. There are just far fewer blacks who are willing to give their lives for the right to live there, then there are citizens of Vidor who are willing to go to prison for killing them. That’s the black and white fact of the matter.
There is more to the overall Vidor picture, however, than just in black and white, and I came to find the gray areas. The more I pecked away at the whole, the more it closed up until the peg I had brought no longer fit. Every new person I met made me forget one of the people I brought with me in my mind’s eye. I started my journey with a view from the overpass on the state’s most-travelled interstate and here it ends at the foot of aisle 7 at Wood’s grocery store. Before my eyes are dozens of black faces, or rather, the same black face reproduced on dozens of Northern toilet tissue packages. It is the face of the baby with the round innocent eyes of a young doe as it looks up from the pond to plead compassion from a hunter who squints away.
The toilet tissue display also contains packs with white babies, though they have all been picked out of the top row, and in a few places in the second and third rows. The disarray suggests that shoppers have been moving the black faces aside to get to white ones. I call the young stock boy over and ask him if they had sold any packages with black babies yet. “I dunno. Maybe some of the Mexicans bought some,” he says and goes back to stamping cans of grapefruit juice.
There are two types of travelers that stop in Vidor. Those to whom it’s just a small circle on the map would look at the foot of aisle 7 and tsk tsk about how some people can be racist even in their choice of toiletries. The traveler who is aware of Vidor’s reputation, however, would be amazed that the
packages with black faces were put out at all.
(Note: This was written for Texas Monthly in 1988 and not published until now.)