The summer air was so hot you could almost smell the heat as every piece of pavement, plant, and metal object outside baked in the Texas sun. Night was better, but not by much. A bath before bedtime was a necessity if only so you didn’t stick to the sheets.
Visiting my grandparents meant sleeping in a bed next to the window, a scant five yards from the railroad tracks. Sleep was difficult, not because a train ever rumbled by on the abandoned tracks, but because my ears stayed on alert, listening for footsteps along the tracks. And one night, they came.
The steps were close now, pounding the earth, echoing in the night air as one foot dragged behind the other. Only the thin mesh of the window screen separated me from danger. I pulled the sheet up over my head, too scared to move, too afraid to breathe. And then it happened.
His hands were on my arm, shaking me, as drool dropped from his snarling lips and hit my skin. (Bad men always drool.) Someone screamed, a shrill, high-pitched sound that struck terror to my soul. Wait a minute … a surprisingly high-pitched scream.
“I gotta go t’ the baffroom, Sissy.” My baby sister shook me with urgency. “I gotta go.”
Outside the window, the footsteps by the track faded slowly into the distance.
Minutes later, Baby Sister was asleep and the tracks were quiet. Wide-eyed, I sat by the window on the opposite side of the room – away from the tracks – and stared up at a tiny spot of light on the 13th floor of the old hotel. Bonnie and Clyde stayed there once, they tell me.
They say Bonnie and Clyde slept there, once. Maybe. Or maybe that’s a Texas tale as tall as the 14-story hotel itself. Rising up out of the Texas plain, the Baker Hotel reigns over everything below, an aging queen commanding an ever-shrinking domain.
From a short distance, the Baker is striking still, but up close, it’s evident decay is consuming it from the inside out. With its top-tier walkway, geometric form, and the remains of an Olympic-sized pool, the towering structure is a monument to what humans think of themselves.
My grandfather was on the crew that built the Baker, which is why it fascinates me so. Dedicated mere days after the 1929 stock market crash, the Baker weathered the Great Depression well, but was brought low by something much smaller.
Antibiotics — they say — is what brought the Baker down.
At the turn of the 20th century, Mineral Wells, Texas was the place to be when it came to rest and relaxation. Antibiotics didn’t exist back then, but it didn’t matter. The town had something better to offer. As the story goes, an old “crazy” woman sat all day by a well of funny-tasting water and drank herself back to sanity, The water cured “crazy,” they said, so of course they named it “crazy water.”
The rage was on. People came from everywhere to drink it, bathe in it, make money off it. The Baker Hotel – the most out-of-place skyscraper in the world – was built to accommodate people rushing to get a sip.
At the pharmacy in town, Ed Dismuke rode the Crazy Water wave all the way to the bank with his Dismuke’s Famous Crystals, Dismuke’s Eyebath, and his Pronto-Lax (don’t ask). No need for a doctor, he insisted, and lived to be 97 just to prove it. The Crazy Water wave kept the Baker Hotel afloat all the way through the hard days of the Depression, but met its match when antibiotics hit the market.
After all, a shot in the arm was easier than holding your nose to swallow the stinky miracle-water.
This was published in four parts in a weekly emailer to the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary staff and faculty under “Railroad Tracks and Skyscrapers – GK,” something only they will recognize and understand. It was a fun reminder to send in announcements for Gatekeeper, a weekly seminary newsletter, on time.