I found a newspaper clipping tucked deep in a very worn and beat up leather bound book titled An American Bible, written by Elbert Green Hubbard and edited by his wife, Alice. This 1912 anthology cradles the biographies of some of this country’s most influential citizens of the time—if not all time in my humble opinion—Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln to name a few. One hundred fifty pages of his tome are devoted to the “Gospel of Elbert Hubbard,” but I had no clue who this fellow was. I came across the book in a box gathering dust and mites in the half-basement beneath our house in Solana Beach. It contained some of my father’s things, most likely hastily packed up from his home office when we evacuated Itasca, Illinois a few weeks after his sudden death in December, 1970. Also in the box were several record albums, books and dictionaries my father employed to teach himself Spanish. I had not previously peered into this container. Someone had written on the outside “Grover Gauntt Jr.” in black marker and for 38 years, for me, that box was like kryptonite to Superman. But it was 2011, three years after my father’s letter arrived in my hands, and that spell had been broken.
One side of the 2″ by 5″ clipping is an essay titled “Life” attributed to “By West Texas.” From the clipping, I could not determine the date or name of the paper. Neither could I be sure if “West Texas” was the name of the author—that would be a pretty cool name— or the location from whence it was submitted. On the other side of the clipping are fragments of what appear to be local submissions by readers: A tirade against people who prefer to cater to the care of their pets and animals rather than the less fortunate of their fellow man; a big party of “young people of the Patton community at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sam Blackman;” and an announcement of a sale of “Baled cane and oats by W.C. Jaynes, Valley Mills, Rt. 3.” A clue! I quickly checked Google Maps and found a Valley Mills, Texas, situated seventy five miles south of Fort Worth.
Valley Mills, Texas
Valley Mills is also 110 miles west of Athens, Texas, where my Granddaddy Grover Gauntt and other predecessors were raised. I therefore deduced the book and the clipping traced back to my dad’s family in central Texas. Here’s a bit of philosophy from I’d guess at least eighty-plus years ago. What, if anything, has changed? I pondered.
Life A man comes into this world without his consent and leaves without his will. During his stay on earth his time is spent in one continuous round of contraries and misunderstandings. In his infancy he is an angel; in his boyhood, he is a devil; in his manhood he is everything from a lizard up; in his duties he is a dam fool. If he raises a family he is a chump; if he raises a check, he is a thief; and then the law raises hell with him; if he is a poor man, he is a bad manager and has no sense; if he is rich, he is dishonest but considered smart; if he is in politics, he is a grafter and a crook; if he is out of politics, you can’t place him and he is an undesirable citizen; if he goes to church, he is a hypocrite; and if he stays away f rom church he is a sinner; if he donates to foreign missions, he does it for show; if he doesn’t, he is stingy and a “tight wad.” When he first comes into the world every one wants to kiss him; before he goes out, they all want to kick him; if he dies young, there was a grand future before him; if he lives to a ripe old age, he is only in the way and is living to save funeral expenses. In order to be entirely healthy, he must eat nothing, drink nothing, smoke nothing, and see that the air is properly sterilized before breathing. By West Texas
In as much as the reference to Valley Mills was one of the few clues to the origin of the newspaper, I did a little research. Here’s a few factoids about this berg, population 1,203. In 1882, the new town spawned by the expanding railroads was completely destroyed by a tornado. In 1973 an F-5 tornado, the strongest category there is with wind speeds of 261-318 mph, pretty much wiped out the town again. Miraculously, there were no fatalities. Twenty years earlier the folks of nearby Waco had not been so fortunate. At 4 p.m, the day after Mother’s Day, the worst tornado in Texas history, another category F-5, carved up a huge section of the city taking the lives of 114 folks and injuring 597.
Waco, Texas May 7, 1953
Elbert Green Hubbard (Self-Portrait Sketch from An American Bible)
I also did a little sleuthing about the author of An American Bible. Elbert Green Hubbard was a very interesting character—soap salesman turned philosopher, publisher and very popular, ubiquitous writer. He and his wife were big promoters of the arts and self-proclaimed socialists and anarchists. He continues to be oft quoted including some of these I recognized:
God will not look you over for medals, diplomas or degrees-but for scars. Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive. Do nothing, say nothing and be nothing, and you’ll never be criticized.
And my favorite:
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
In 1912, the same year An American Bible was published, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sunk. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew, over 1,500 perished. Hubbard wrote of the disaster singling out Ida Straus who refused to get in the lifeboats ahead of the men, choosing instead to go down with the ship and her husband:
Mr. and Mrs. Straus, I envy you that legacy of love and loyalty left to your children and grandchildren. The calm courage that was yours all your long and useful career was your possession in death. You knew how to do three great things—you knew how to live, how to love and how to die. One thing is sure … to pass out as did Mr. and Mrs. Isador Straus is glorious. Few have such a privilege. Happy lovers, both. In life they were never separated and in death they are not divided.
Isador and Ida Straus
A couple of years later, World War I broke out and Hubbard was desperate to go to Europe and report on the action. However, because of a minor dust-up with federal authorities he was denied a passport. He begged and pleaded and finally received a pardon and his passport. On May 1, 1915, Hubbard and his wife boarded the RMS Lusitania in New York City bound for Britain. Six days later, eleven miles off Old Head, Kinsale, Ireland, their ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. 1,198 passengers and crew perished, including the Hubbards. Most agree this tragedy was the straw that broke the back of the United States and drew a recalcitrant America into the euthanasia of millions of young men we conveniently categorize as World War I.
There were 761 survivors of the sinking including Ernest C. Cowper who wrote this in a letter to the Hubbards’ oldest surviving son.
I cannot say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck. Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms—the fashion in which they always walked the deck—and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’ They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’ The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him. It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.
Elbert and Alice Hubbard
Ernest Cowper and the girl he saved from the sinking Lusitania, Helen Smith
A magnificent golf course was built on Old Head several years ago and in 2011 was ranked as the No. 1 most spectacular golf course on the planet. You’ll get no disagreement from me—I was privileged to play there twice in 2003. It is stunning! The caddies pointed out to us where the Lusitania went down. Our spirits were subdued by the presence of so many others.
There remained the mystery of “By West Texas.” If this wasn’t a guy, then why would this paper in central Texas run an editorial from the western part of the State? Then, on a Monday, April 15, 2013, two pressure-cooker bombs were detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon—three killed and one-hundred eighty maimed. Another inexplicable act of terrorism by two brothers originally from Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Two days later I was in my car listening to NPR and a story about a fertilizer plant that blew up somewhere in “West Texas.” Hmmmm.
“Fertilizer” and “explosion” took me immediately back to Oklahoma City and the U-Haul truck bomb detonated by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. Those two monsters took the lives of 168 souls, injured 680 more, and destroyed or severely damaged over 320 buildings within a 16 block radius. Motivated by his hatred of the federal government and its handling of an incident in 1993, McVeigh timed his attack to coincide with the second anniversary of the deadly fire that ended the siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. McVeigh and Nichols had created their own F-5 tornado that exceeded the toll of life and property of the one that tore up Waco in 1953.
West Fertilizer Plant 2013
The nightly news on television was dominated by the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas. West was a town! The plant on the north side of the city named after its postmaster, Thomas West, stored ammonium nitrate, the same type of fertilizer used by McVeigh and Nichols to make their bomb—lots of it. It started with a fire and a large number of firefighters and other emergency personnel rushed into the plant to put it out. Then, there were two explosions milliseconds apart from one another. The massive blast killed fifteen people, including 12 first responders, and injured over 200. It destroyed nearby schools, an apartment complex, and a nursing home and damaged hundreds of homes in surrounding area.
The explosion was the equivalent of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake in this town of 2,807, twenty miles north of Waco and about 100 miles west of Athens. Heck, Valley Mills and West were practically next door neighbors! West drew media attention from around the world. President Barack Obama and Texas Gov. Rick Perry attended the memorial service for the first responders. Three years later authorities ruled the cause of the fire as arson. To date, no one has been arrested. They will ultimately have to answer for what they did—if not in this life, the next for sure.
The last time West received any sort of national attention had been in 1896 at the “Crash at Crush”. The publicity stunt conceived by railroad agent, William Crush, featured a head-on collision by two steam-powered locomotives. 30,000 spectators drawn from all over central Texas gathered to witness the spectacle. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see something like that?! About 4 p.m. the trains were sent speeding toward each other. Contrary to mechanics’ predictions, the steam boilers exploded on impact, propelling huge chunks of red hot metal into the crowd. Two people were killed and many others injured, including Jarvis Deane of Waco, who was photographing the event. He lost an eye. Now people go see NASCAR races.
The Crash at Crush, 1896
This story is dedicated to the souls from West, Valley Mills, Athens, Waco, Oklahoma City, Kinsale, North Atlantic, Boston, Itasca, Solana Beach—to all of the precious loved ones who left too early without our consent.
Grover Jr, Casey and Grover Gauntt Sr. near West, Texas (1953)
is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.
was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002. A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English. Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.