I was born in Wichita Falls but, I'll admit, I've never spent much time here. My father moved me overseas when I was barely two and after that I only came back a few times to visit his grandmother (Grandma Zack, mean as can be) and other scattered relatives.
When I was a teenager he'd drag me up here now and again for a family reunion--something I hated fiercely. It was always hot and the place seemed old and shabby. I didn't connect much with it at all except for the moments (always) when I'd wonder if I'd run into my mother.
If she lived here still. I tried to imagine what she was doing, where she lived, if she'd recognize me if she saw me on the street. I didn't know then of course that she was nowhere near Wichita Falls at the time--in fact she was about as far away as you could get, living in Korea with her third husband. There was no way of knowing then--because almost no one on my dad's side of the family would talk about her and when they did it was in a mostly hushed and disapproving way--but the person I imagined my mother to be was the complete opposite of the person she turned out to be.
As an adult, I've been back several times and over the years my feelings about the place have shifted. Turns out Wichita Falls is a lot bigger than I remember it. My dad's grandmother lived in a poorer section of town. I remember a creaky old bungalow with a chain link fence and a reunion dinner held at an old barbecue place housed in a trailer. I remember the air force base and a mostly deserted downtown.
The Wichita Falls I see today is still pretty run down in places. But there are also really nice neighborhoods with lovely brick Tudor homes and sprawling mansions. My mother and stepdad (husband number three) live in this neighborhood--on the very street that my parents lived on when I was a baby. My parents lived in an apartment building and now my mother's house is across the corner. It's more than a little strange to think about the long journey she took between here and there.
On this trip, as with everyone I've made since my mother and I finally met nearly 20 years ago, they gave us what they call the "nickel tour," showing off Midwestern State University (where my mother went to college for a few years), the (still mostly deserted) downtown and all the built up "oil homes," including one that used to belong to the family that founded Mobile Oil.
Apparently there used to be a lot of money in this town.
"Wichita Falls used to be the richest city per capita," my stepdad told us.
It also was, apparently, quite the place for crime.
Bonnie & Clyde spent a lot of time here--in fact Bonnie Parker once worked in a cafe here and, according to an exhibit at the Museum of North Texas History, moved here to be with Clyde Barrow after he got out of jail (lying to her mother in Dallas that she was just coming here for a job).
Jesse and Frank James also spent quite a bit of time here. As did Charles Ponzi. Yeah, the Ponzi scheme guy.
My favorite bit of Wichita Falls history so far, however, is its reputation as something of a liquor town--in fact, they called it Whisky-ta-Falls.
With 21 saloons and liquor traffic so heavy they changed the train schedules to accomodate those who came into town to buy some booze, this obviously would have been my kind of place back in the day.
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