SENSE OF PLACE The Flying Red Horse
Pegasus? We never called him that. The Magnolia Petroleum slogan, "Look for the sign of the Flying Red Horse," gave him all the name he needed to send a West Texas schoolchild’s fantasies soaring. Pegasus was some foreign creature of distant and dimly comprehended myth, untouchable except by gods. The Flying Red Horse, while no less magical, was real. Was ours.
Oh, Dallas claimed him, but what could those who merely lived here know of the dreams he embodied? He really belonged to those of us growing up earthbound in dim, small, prairie towns.
Picture this: There are no interstates. There is no car air conditioning. If you’re driving Highway 80 from West Texas to Dallas, as we always were back then, the last 30-mile stretch from Fort Worth takes a stop-and-go hour and a half, thanks to Arlington’s early passion for stoplights. Wild with a child’s impatience, you count off the aching minutes, searching the flat horizon for your first glimpse of the long journey’s end. And see it at last-a fling of winged scarlet, hung sky-high in audacious assertion of a city presence Dallas had not yet attained.
Well, think about it. The city of Dallas didn’t build the Magnolia building; that Texas oil company did in the early 70s, erecting the tallest structure south of Washington, D. C., then defying the Great Depression by crowning it in the mid ’30s with its own corporate logo. Magnolia Petroleum’s horse measured 30 by 40 feet, weighed almost 15 tons, towered 400 hundred feet above the ground. The intent was to celebrate the company’s eminence, not the city’s.
But we couldn’t know that and were too young then to care if we had. Those of us he dazzled on those rare trips-sun-gilded by day, a radiant beacon at night, visible from miles away in any direction-saw the Flying Red Horse through imagination as transport to promised adventure. I doubt there was a country child in Texas who didn’t burn to ride him once. Later, some of us did, symbolically, accepting his offer of a dream ride to glory, with Dallas as our destination. Many found childhood’s first promise kept in the city that had worn him like a tethered star for decades before growing to deserve such a jewel.
This whole notion is illusory, of course. The vast electric sign we call the Flying Red Horse is nothing more than a monument to commerce, endowed with no magical powers beyond those bestowed by the fancy of children. Still, something brought us all here. Something made Dallas more than the prairie interruption it should, by geographical definition, have remained.
Something even saved the Flying Red Horse itself from the destructive frenzy of development that almost cost us the soul of downtown in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Reduced from the city’s supreme symbol to a hard-to-find flicker along labyrinths of towers twice his height, he might be overlooked now by today’s children, forgotten by tomorrow’s.
But never by yesterday’s. Maybe we should have called him Pegasus, after all.