The snapping noise was both definitive and foreign. People hearing it clear across the park knew it was not a good sound. They looked up. What they saw was a seat at the virtual peak of the Ferris wheel swivel off its pivot at an asymmetrical dangle.
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From that fractured seat, three small figures in bright uniforms flew into the air. The fairgrounds erupted in screams. One of the figures sailed clear over the Ferris wheel. Another tumbled straight down through the metal apparatus. The third figure headed down toward the guts of the Ferris wheel as well. But then, almost monkeylike, the third figure reached out and grasped ahold of a metal bar and clung there, swinging some 25 feet from the ground, until she fell as well.
The man operating the Sky Wheel stopped the machine almost immediately. Hundreds began to run toward it. Those who arrived first saw one teenage girl lying still on the pavement and another motionless on the platform.
Is she okay? Judy Miller and Sharon Harrison sat crying thirty feet from the ground as workers began to scale the motionless wheel. They could see their friends splayed out on the ground. Ambulances and policemen arrived on the scene. Climbing off an altogether different ride, Ouida and another band member were accosted by a breathless stranger.
Ouida followed the rush of fairgoers in the gravitational pull of the accident. Elsewhere on the fairgrounds, a ten-year-old boy and his grandfather were strolling through the crowd when a park official approached them and began to speak quietly to the elderly man. They were ushered into a building and into a room where a number of cots lay on the floor. On one of the cots was a blanket covering a body.
The official lifted the blanket. Larry Ed stared back at Cynthia—his sister and single constant presence after his mom had died mysteriously in the park two years before. The medics loaded Kay and Barbara into an ambulance. The latter was bruised, and her ankle hurt. The medics told her to lie down next to Kay, who seemed to be sleeping but was moaning loudly. The noises scared Barbara. She remembered that sudden sick descent. But remembered as well flailing with her hands for something to grab onto, and somehow, with her eyes closed, her fingers curled around some metallic object and… Where was Cynthia?
The other Memphis band members watched shell-shocked as the ambulance left the fairgrounds. There would be no evening performance at the Cotton Bowl. As one sobbing band member prepared to board, a boy stepped out of the crowd. Tragic accident. Over the loudspeaker, the students of Memphis High heard the names of three of their classmates. Miss Phillips reached the hospital long before the parents did. Is Kay Leslie your student? Miss Phillips nodded. Is Cynthia Combest your student? A wave of dizziness overcame the band instructor. The office telephone rang. She could hear the unconscious girl screaming.
Word had come down from the lawsuit-conscious Texas State Fair officials: Spare no expense. Leslie arrived at the hospital before his wife did. Miss Phillips began to stammer her sympathies. He coldly ignored her. The band director thanked the hospital staff and boarded the bus, which drove all evening in near silence, other than a few half-stifled sobs. They arrived at Memphis High School after midnight. As the children filed out, their parents rushed to embrace them. The next evening, Wednesday night, Barbara Allen returned to Memphis by train.
She stepped out onto the platform on her crutches. Nearly everyone in town had turned out to greet her at the depot. They cried and hugged her as she passed through the crowd with her parents. That night, while paying their respects at the Combest household, Barbara saw something she had never seen before: She saw her father cry. After a full day of holding her emotions in check, Miss Phillips began to crumble. Her hands and feet were tingling; her sobs came out in tortured little whimpers. Doc Goodall, a local physician, could see that the band director was terrified of going to the funeral.
He gave her a shot of something that would put her under for a full day. But nearly everyone else in town crammed the pews and otherwise formed a ring around First Methodist Church. This would occur to Ouida Massey, and surely to others in Memphis. But what to do with that fact?
How does a plucky town surrender to its mortality?
Kay Leslie came home two months after the accident, just before Christmas. For weeks she had been in a coma, and the Leslies were warned to expect the worst. So fixated were the doctors on her head injury that they all but overlooked her hip, which had been badly disfigured. In fact, Kay suffered no lasting infirmity from the neck up, other than hearing loss from a lacerated eardrum. She arrived in Memphis on crutches. Students volunteered to carry her books from class to class throughout the spring semester. In the summer she returned to Baylor Hospital for hip surgery.
By the fall of , Kay was walking under her own power again, though with a heavy limp. Classmates wrote obliquely in her yearbook about how much they admired her. Barbara invited her over for a slumber party. But no one spoke to her about the accident. No one spoke to anyone about the accident.
The most visible reminder of the tragedy was, of course, the Combest family, reeling from two deaths. Young Larry Ed returned immediately to school but in the middle of class would have to excuse himself to go vomit in the restroom. His father relocated the boy to Corpus Christi for a short while. Eventually, Mr. Combest remarried and, in , moved his family west to the Panhandle.
Barbara, Tooter, and Ouida went on without their queen bee. They formed a singing group, performing Buddy Holly tunes at school dances. And they continued to torment the Memphis boys with their out-of-town preferences.
One day, about a year after the accident, Barbara and Ouida traveled to Gunnison, Colorado, and visited the local fair. Someone dared Barbara to ride the Ferris wheel. Ouida climbed into the seat next to Barbara. They had not reached the top before Barbara started to panic. She grabbed at the bars, began to cry out. The operator stopped the ride. Miss Phillips missed several days of school. But she was back on the football field with her marching band the week after that.
On October 11, , a year to the day after the accident, the band director went to the cemetery with a bunch of flowers.
Farris Wheel at Tara Farms
He said nothing this day either. He simply walked over to Kathy Phillips and wrapped his arms around her shaking body and held her for a long time. In , after four years in Memphis, she said good-bye and set sail for Okinawa, Japan. Everyone from the town has a different answer. No doubt the decline of the local cotton industry, along with increased mechanization, dried up much of the labor base. Now they stay home. TV ruined visiting. No one can pinpoint a precise moment in time. Was it in the late sixties, when the Zephyr train made its last stop in Memphis?
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Was it during the Carter years, when the skyrocketing interest rate took down half the businesses on the square? Or did the final shoe drop during the optimistic flush of the Reagan years, when Wal-Mart came to Childress and worked its dubious wonders on the area economy? On one point there is universal agreement: The spark, the promise, and the innocence of Memphis have all gone away. Until two years ago, he represented the U. Bush unsuccessfully ran in and presided as chairman of the House agricultural committee.
Sometimes the three of them get together. And sometimes they, unlike former congressman Combest and many others, return to Memphis for high school reunions. Equanimity has no easy recipe. People walk with limps. They wake up in the dark aswim in monstrous images. And the woman who was once a girl dubbed Tooter, who twirled a baton through the bustle that is no more, has seen a divorce from her husband, the death of her daughter, and a career in banking that has improbably delivered her to an office in Dallas that sits a short drive down Interstate 30 from the fairgrounds where Cynthia fell.
But she does not avoid the little cotton town that fell under the wheel. Yes, in a sense I would like to see it go on forever, knowing that it will never be as it was. I guess I never wanted it to grow away from the way it was. But the memories I have are so wonderful, and no one can take those from me.
And when I go back, sure, it saddens me. And what happened with Cynthia probably rocked that little community more than anything. But I can look around and always feel at home. Walking back into my past. For the story behind this story, read our interview with Robert Draper. Sign up for Texas Monthly's State of Texas newsletter to get stories like this delivered to your inbox daily.
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Owned by Ray Cammack Shows, the foot-tall Ferris wheel is hauled to fairs in the western states on five tractor trailers and takes 16 hours to erect at each fair. June 23, If you go When: Opens at 4 p. Jonathan Horn. Follow Us. Show Comments. Support our journalism Send investigative tips Report a problem with this story. More from this Author. Debate over minimum wage hike rolls on.
SD business leaders at White House talking fiscal cliff. Should your boss pay for your parking tickets? Nuclear steam generators hit the road. Portions of four massive nuclear steam generators that were part of the San Onofre nuclear power plant for nearly 30 years will each soon make their way through North County on a truck longer than a football field. Teen entrepreneurs win national title. Fair visitors enjoy fireworks, food and last spin on rides on the final day of fair. Teen battling cancer auctions prized steer at fair to pay for treatment.
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