Monday, September 26, 2022 Sep 26, 2022
79° F Dallas, TX

Gone West

On growing up in a town that's no longer there.
By |
Illustration by i2i Art

On April 17, the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, exploded. The blast, equivalent to around 20,000 pounds of dynamite, killed 15 people, injured 200 others, destroyed 161 houses, and damaged almost 175 more. Much less important, it made my childhood disappear.

My parents moved to West shortly before I was born in 1974. They were living in Sweetwater at the time, building a life together as schoolteachers. But my older brother came down with chronic bronchitis, and his doctor advised them to move to a climate better suited for his condition. So they moved to West.

My mother, Susan, grew up in West, a block away from City Hall on Columbus Street, and most of her family still lived there. After moving around a bit during our first few years there, we finally settled at 1509 N. Reagan St. It was about 500 yards from the fertilizer plant. The town had grown up around the plant, and no one thought much about it, unless the ammonia smell was especially strong that day.

My parents built a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home on a lot they got a deal on because of the high-voltage electrical transmission tower located on the southeast corner of the front lawn. When we played baseball, we used one leg of the tower as first base. I remember hiding behind the house during one of those games after I hit a line drive into Rudy Rizo’s passing van. My parents weren’t even that upset because I was generally terrible at baseball.

Almost every memory I have of growing up in West happened within a two- or three-block radius of that house, in the shadow of the fertilizer plant. West is a small town, and my friends and I made it even smaller, bouncing between a few houses on Reagan Street and West City Park, just over the railroad tracks from West Fertilizer Co. That was our kingdom.

That said, most of those memories involve someone, usually me, ending up injured. I still have a scar on my nose from hitting the mailbox in front of Mrs. Pescaia’s house not long after I learned how to ride a bike. (I was shirtless, shoeless, and only wearing a pair of brown Toughskins jeans.) But that’s what childhood is for—doing dumb, dangerous things with your friends that result in good stories and permanent marks on your body.

But they aren’t all memories like that. The last time I saw my grandfather was at that house. I was 11. My grandparents came over for one of their regular visits. I was shooting baskets on the cement driveway, and my grandfather came out and played with me. It was something he never did, not once. He died of a stroke on a Main Street sidewalk a few days later. 

I moved away from West for good when I was 20, almost two decades ago. After my parents moved to Waco eight years ago, I became a tourist just like anyone else, only really stopping in West when a road-trip partner wanted kolaches from Czech Stop. Every once in a while, if I was by myself, I would drive through town, making the main drag then taking Reagan Street all the way up to 1509 N. Reagan. I didn’t live in West anymore, and neither did my parents, but we always had that house.

When I fretted over what would happen to it in the days and weeks after the explosion, my friend Tim wondered why I was so upset. It was just a house. But it wasn’t. It was my anchor to my hometown, and even though other people lived there, it was still mine. But they tore it down a few days ago. All that’s left is the electrical tower in the front yard.

At least I can always remember how terrible I was at baseball.