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Edition #165, January 1, 2012

In The Steps of David. . .

Photographer: Blair Kooistra

                                                                      Photo by Blair Kooistra

In The Steps of David. . .

Few of us think of the late David P. Morgan as a Texan--a genteel product of Louisville, perhaps. More likely, the image of him typing at an old manual typewriter in the old TRAINS magazine offices at 1027 N Seventh Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin springs to mind.

For a short time in the late 1940s, though, shoehorned between his obligation to serve for Uncle Sam right after World War II and the beginning of his career at Kalmbach Publishing, DPM called the Lone Star state his home. Morgan was discharged from the Air Force in San Antonio in 1946--born just a bit too late to serve overseas in the Last Big War--and he joined his mother and father in tiny Taft, 30 miles or so east of Corpus Christi, where the elder Morgan had accepted a Presbyterian pastoral calling. David didn't stay long--not even two years--before answering his own calling to go north to join Al Kalmbach's magazine staff in Milwaukee. Two years? For the skinny man just out of his teens, they certainly were formative ones, for it was in Taft that two pivotal events that shaped his life intersected: his discovery of the Southern Pacific and the beginnings of a career in Journalism.

David briefly attended Del Mar College in Corpus Christi and got a job reporting for the Taft Tribune, the town's weekly newspaper. Given the staffing constraints of small-town newspapers, it's likely he photographed his own stories, perhaps the genesis to Morganís assertion that good photography was as important to journalism as writing. No doubt DPM spent a good amount of time hanging around the Southern Pacific depot. In the late 1940s, Black Widow F-units had not yet invaded this remote corner of the Golden Empire. Harriman Standard 2-8-0's were likely still in charge of the trains running down the old San Antonio & Aransas Pass railroad from "Santone,Ē as they had for over 40 years. This taste of the classic Southern Pacific--a back-water taste to be sure--was enough to give The Friendly a special place in his heart.

I'd often been curious about Taft. It seemed strange that somehow Morgan would pass through this tiny place off the beaten path, way down in a humid corner of Texas, of all places. The Gulf breezes blow constantly there, so it's no surprise that today Vestas energy has planted a large wind farm in the cotton fields surrounding the town. After more than 15 years of living in the Lone Star state, I finally had a chance to make a detour through Taft--sort of a pilgrimage to understanding the life of DPM a bit further. The 100-degree days in Fort Worth piled up, one after another, nearing two-dozen in a row, becoming one of the hottest summers on record. It seemed like a good time to visit the Gulf Coast, Port Aransas, and Corpus Christi. Taft? It was only a dozen miles or so off the straight-shot freeway of I-35, practically on the way to Port A, and close enough to not give the family too much suspicion as to my motives. Besides, there's rarely a long road-trip with the family that doesn't devolve into a detour here and there to check out railroad points of interest--I'm sure the readers can all relate.

Across the billiard-flat cotton fields, we neared Taft. I'm sure apart from the wind farm and the mechanized cotton picking machinery laboring in the fields, the place hasn't changed much. Taftís business district, though, is mostly boarded up. It wouldn't take much to imagine what it was like when Rev. Morgan and his wife moved to Taft and was joined shortly by their son David. Today's population is around 3300. The Taft Tribune is still in publication: circulation under 900. Sixty-seven percent of the population is Latino. Over 25% of the 2000 census population lived under the poverty line, understandable given the wooden shacks passing as homes on the outskirts of town. I wonder if the Latino influence was as strong here in the late 1940s, of if the heavy lifting and backbreaking work in the cotton fields was done largely by African-Americans, eventually displaced by an influx of Latinos? Certainly, growing up in Louisville in the 30's, Morgan was used to non-whites living in squalor. It makes me wonder how much of what was reported on in Taft in the late 1940's concerned the health and welfare of the minority population? I'm guessing this was years before "advocacy journalism" had filtered down to the hinterlands.

After a few minutes driving around town and taking it in, wondering silently how DPM, the slender young man with his ever-present reporterís notebook, fit into this place during his time spent here, we headed out of town down the highway towards Gregory, Aransas Pass and the ferry boat to Port Aransas. The Southern Pacific track is still in place, and still used, but as a through route between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, the line is severed north of Sinton. Today this is Union Pacific's branch out to Ingleside where a big string of chemical plants--Sherwin Alumina, Du Pont--require a train a day to service them. The trackage is wobbly, but laid with good welded steel.

The sun was setting when we neared Gregory, the old Espee to our right. Ahead of us, a string of freight cars, complete with a rear end device, were stopped. Further ahead, just entering the highway was a white passenger van, garnished with "conspicuity striping"--a railroad crew van, no doubt. At the head of the train, a conductor in a high-visibility vest was knocking off hand brakes. What luck! An actual train, and about to get underway! True, it was headed AWAY from Taft, but beggars can't be choosers--and it's always more fun to stumble across the unexpected train than to know one is coming but never see it.

Brakes knocked off, the yellow pair of Union Pacific diesels--some sort of wide cab GE thing paired with an SD70M--ambled slowly through the thick gulf air, past whirling wind machines and fields of cotton with the bolls not yet harvested. It certainly isn't the sort of setting you equate with David Page Morgan, and a brief visit to Taft didn't make it any easier to place the quiet giant of railroad journalism from our youth amid the cotton fields of south Texas. But no doubt DPM, if alive today, would have made peace with a world without the Southern Pacific, finding comfort in the increased productivity and efficiency of welded rail, trains without cabooses, two-main train crews, and low-bid contract crew haulers. And he would have done it with a journalist's eye to detail, perhaps a skill developed during his formative years in Taft, over sixty years ago.

Blair Kooistra

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