The Square revisited

(Editor’s Note: John Hallum, a former Bradyite with family roots in McCulloch County, recently submitted several articles written about his views of Brady, in particular the downtown square, as seen from the eyes of a youngster growing up in Brady in the early 1940s. On leave from his fulltime job as an interpretive park ranger with the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alk. he is back in Brady visiting old friends and acquaintences. He is also a published writer having written several articles for various newspapers and magazines. Having lived a great portion of his adult life in Alaska, seeing the changes in his former hometown upon his return to the Heart of Texas prompted a series of articles about life in Brady. This is the first in a five-part series submitted by Hallum for the enjoyment of our readers.) When you are wheelless in Brady, you need a couple of walking legs to get you down to the Square. My grandfather, Clyde Hall, would walk rather than drive. We had two Packards sitting in the driveway at Eighth and High St. and he’d be striding down Blackburn just throwing one leg in front of the other. In his later years when his physical systems began to fail, the doctor remarked that he had the circulatory system of a young man. A second reason for walking is that while I spent a lot of time on the Square when I was a growing boy over fifty years ago, for some reason I’m still growing. And if I don’t stop, I’m going to have to buy a new wardrobe. I’m not much of a shopper. So I walked from 12th down China, turned right on the San Angelo Highway and was glad to see the benches in front of where the old Western Auto used to be. I sat for a while and that got me to thinking and remembering what was here and what wasn’t. Off to my right is the fa’ade of the Palace Theater. Every other Saturday during the Forties, my grandmother would send me to town with a dollar. First stop was Mr. Jones’s Barbershop. Brown, who ran the shoeshine concession, would discuss which of us had seen the other with which girl. By the time we got that settled, Mr. Jones finished my haircut and charged me fifty cents. Then next door was a little caf’ where I had a Nesbitt Orange (five cents) and delicious hamburger (twenty cents.) I learned to eat onions there because I could never remember to tell them to hold them. Then the cost of a movie for someone under twelve was twelve cents. You got a double feature plus this week’s episode of the serial. The Phantom was one of the first I saw. There was Captain Mephisto, a bad guy who ran around dressed like a pirate. They ought to have locked him up. Then as the years rolled by, we got to see 18 episodes of Black Arrow, an honest Navajo, who had to contend with a whole tribe of bad white men. The Purple Monster (all serials were in black and white) was the first sci-fi movie I ever encountered. This was at the end of WWII and they launched V-2 rockets at White Sands Proving Grounds, N.M., to explore space a hundred miles up. Nobody in this country was more interested in that subject than I. But with the Purple Monster, a run-of-mill alien pre-Roswell, it was much more punch-in-the-mouth than blazing rockets, and it never failed, I always missed the episodes when they’d blast off into space. Keep track now; I’ve spent 87 cents. Popcorn, five cents. Three ball gums at a penny apiece, 95 cents. When I went home, I’d give my grandmother the nickel. Going east on the next block stood Broad Mercantile. What a temple of things you wanted, that place was! You could smell the sweep, leather, gun oil and the manila rope the instant you stepped inside. It was years before I learned that you bought knives and fishing lures at a sporting goods store and not a hardware store. They sold number one Victor single-spring traps for seventy-five cents. A number two ran a dollar and a half. It makes the breath come quick just to think about it. On east across the street stood the Brady National Bank, where after Uncle Buck Richards died, I had to walk only a few steps farther to my grand-dad’s insurance agency to ask him for a nickel (remember I would have one on deposit with my grandmother) to buy an ice cream cone over at Rudder’s Drug Store. Rudder’s stood across the street to the north. Along with great vanilla ice cream, they had one of the best selections of comic books in town. There was an understanding that if you bought an ice cream cone, you were allowed to read the comics. Anyhow I understood it even if John Rudder didn’t. When you sat there on the floor reading comics half-way between a soda fountain and cosmetics, the world smelled pretty nice. Then one day they brought in one of the wonders of the ages. If you’ve never seen the Rudder Free Standing Do-Nut Maker, consider yours a deprived childhood. It stood as tall and about as large as a popcorn machine. The top half was glass encased. A set of stainless steel lips from above puckered and spat out glistening dough, which dropped in a trough of hot grease. The machine was timed so that the current created by a hidden pump carried the last do-nut out of the way of the falling one. Plop! The trough ran in a circle just next to the glass. Halfway round, a mechanical turner would flip the do-nut allowing the top side to sizzle for a while. Finally at the end of the trough a device lifted the cooked do-nut out and dropped it into a chute that led to the customer’s paper bag. They ran the machine about every half-hour. I made sure I never left the drug store until I had watched, at least, one batch processed. The Smithsonian should have one of those things in operation in their food court! A little farther around the Square to the north stood another establishment dedicated to furthering my education – The Pics. FYI Mexico produces more movies than any other country in the world. That’s according to Trivia Pursuit players. A good portion was shown at the small Spanish-speaking movie house a half-block from Rudders. I had never seen a film where English wasn’t spoken. I couldn’t imagine such a performance but even with my hyper curiosity, this was one place of higher learning where I never ventured. I’ve regretted it always. The domino parlor was along here someplace and I never went in there either. No little boys allowed! Cross the street going north to the Texas Theater. Bob Shanks opened the theater just after the War. The story I heard is that he had been captured by the Japanese and in the misery of detainment, he planned on building a movie house where people could enjoy themselves. Whether the story is true or not, I took him up on it. Not only did I see hundreds of movies there, on Saturday morning he had a special program for kids, a bunch of cartoons, a cowboy movie and then a fellow from KNEL would come over for a live talent show. There were many debuts made on that stage. Most of the kids recited poems or sang love songs popular at the time. When my time came I sang a song long forgotten and perhaps just as well, about somebody who did something bad and when he died, ‘He went down to Hades and sizzled and fried, sizzled and fried, sizzled and fried’ I think that my performance was either too late for airing or too racy for Brady. I heard later I got cut off but boy, was the number a crowd pleasers. The applause was deafening! When Shanks started his theater, he did it in style. The grand opening featured even a movie star. She had appeared in about one movie but Shanks would make up for that deficit later by bringing Smiley Burnett, a singing cowboy who played Gene Autry’s comic relief. Anyhow while I somehow missed out on the opening, I gathered by listening to the general consensus that Mrs. Shanks upstaged the movie star and I know for a fact, having seen her, that Mrs. Shanks was very pretty. As time went on, those who remembered the movie star’s name would see Ivonne DeCarlo play opposite Alec Guiness in ‘Captain’s Paradise’ and Charleton Heston in ‘The Ten Commandments.’ She made about a hundred other movies as well and was very popular until retiring in the late Fifties. Cross the street going west and you see a certifiable landmark, Gartman’s has been there since the Flood. Not the one in ’38 but the one where Noah ran aground on Ararat. Central Drug Store stood about mid-block. The teenage crowd preferred it as a place to take a date, where you wouldn’t have to put up with little kids sitting around the floor reading comic books. The Brady Standard was on west across the North Bridge and about mid-block. Brady wasn’t big enough to support a bookstore. For that you had to drive over to Hemphill-Wells in ‘Angelo. But along with the newspaper, the Brady Standard sold stationary and reference books like dictionaries. Whoever’s editing this story can see that I could surely use one now. Back then you got to do pretty much whatever you asked to do. There was a shoe store on the north side of the Square. I can’t remember exactly where but they had a fluoroscope where you could see on screen your wiggling toes, bones and all, inside your shoes. Fortunately the fluoroscope went the way of radium watch dials. But on the other hand, John Rudder allowed me come back in the pharmacy to watch him compound prescriptions. Of course, I didn’t dare touch a thing. Some of those chemicals might get me! But people took the time to let kids see stuff. At the Brady Standard, I got to watch a fellow operate a Linotype. This thing was the size of a pipe organ, had hot lead running through it, and was operated by a keyboard. The typesetter thumped along at an even pace, copying the stories of the day. The lead filled letter forms which when cooled made slugs of type that eventually went into the press. The whole thing was a wonder. Mark Twain had fifty or sixty years earlier backed Linotype’s competitor and the wonder was why he did it. The long and the short of it was that people took time to show kids things. I guess it was part of living in a small town, a part I’ve always liked remembering. The Brady Hotel farther west would cook the doves you shot and plucked. They served them up the trimmings on the side. Halfway down the west side of the Square stood Skaggs Drug Store. About once a year every kid in town made a pilgrimage to Skaggs. Someone would clear out the store window, lay a tarpaulin across the show window floor up to the plate glass window, the other half of the tarpaulin would be pulled up a little pony wall separating the show area from the store. Then he’d pour about two dozen rattlesnakes in this sealed off area. What rattlesnakes had to do with drugs and cosmetics, we never knew (or asked) but gosh, the rattlers were fun to watch! The one thing that I keep looking round for is a group of three or four men, all of them old enough to draw pensions. They always seemed to be sitting on the raised curbs across the streets from the Square unless somebody cleaned the bird droppings off the benches on the plaza side. They’d find shade if it got to hot. They wore khakis and Stetsons. Now and then one would wear riding boots but more than likely they wore boots with hooks for the laces to lash onto. These weren’t hiking boots. You wouldn’t want to kick a rock with these because it would ruin the shine. Uncle Buck wore boots like that. The men would talk quietly, telling stories I guess. It was a little hard to make much noise if your lip was holding back a load of Garret’s Sweet. If they smoked, they rolled their cigarettes. Generally at least one of them would have a pocket knife out whittling on something. They’d cross there leg at the ankle over the knee of the other leg and you could see their white long underwear sticking running down in the top of their boots. I guess they retired from the railroad or from out west in the oil fields. My best guess is that they saw a lot of ranch work over the last forty or fifty years. When they talked, they never hurried. There was always plenty of time to finish the story. These men were scrubbed and ironed, not a whisker on a cheek. They squinted like men, who spent heir lives in the sun. Real cowboys don’t wear shades. Perhaps February and March is too early to find them and they are scattered out, keeping a chair from running off in a barbershop. I need to find them. I want to check my stories against theirs. My grown daughter was a toddler but not a talker. One of the men shaved a wooden match so fine that it looked like he had cut a curl from a lock of hair. He looked up at me and hardly moving his lips said, ‘Trade you this knife for that little girl.’ I looked over at my wife. She smiled and shook her head. The deal fell through. That was about one of the nicest complements my daughter ever received. Maybe they’ll be there next month. This memory of the Square is just a few randomly chosen highlights. I could probably write this much again. After all this was the center of our town. It was like the hearth of a home. People met, visited, transacted business, fell in love, broke their hearts, and I’m sure died here. There’s a lot to remember, a bunch to forget. Some of it happened, some of it never did, but the Square is a place where history and myth rubbed shoulders. The long and the short of the rubbing were some fine tales. At a time later, I’ll tell some.

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