By now, we’ve all seen news accounts of the massive destruction and pain wreaked by the horrendous explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, April 15. As searchers comb through the still smoking ruins of the plant, the town reels with the sorrow of at least five dead (the toll with undoubtedly rise) and hundreds injured. West will be a long time healing.
Investigations are already underway to pin-point what happened, what laxity of maintenance, what failure of state and federal oversight led to a large plant manufacturing highly explosive materials was built so near the town and surrounded by a school and a nursing home. Answers, unpleasant and nagging, will come. But instead, I want to give the people of West a long, overdue thanks. In one freezing night at least 25 years ago, they have my family and I a lesson in the power of love and community.
This is what happened. West is one of those small, forgettable towns draped along Interstate 35 as it cuts across Texas. Settled by Czech immigrant farmers in the 1840s, West never strayed much beyond its rural roots and Czech heritage. It is perhaps know best to travelers as a convenient resting point at the Little Czech Stop on I-35. For years, like others driving to some other place, we’d stop for coffee, rest rooms and k0laches – doughy pastries filled with jellies or other delights – before pouring back into the car and heading out. One winter that changed.
Frankly, the details are a little shaky. It was sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas and my wife, our then-3-year-0ld son and I were traveling to Ft. Worth when an ice storm moved in across North Texas. The interstate became dangerously slick with ice and we were hungry and tired so we pulled in to West to wait out the storm and see if we would travel on. A man at the gas pump suggested we might try out Picha’s Czech-American Restaurant for something more meaningful than kolaches. So we did.
The place was packed. It was dark and noisy, mainly with locals, as the waitress guided us to a booth. “Where you from,” she asked and we told her San Antonio and that we were headed to be with family but were stopped by the ice. The menu was largely Czech dishes. I can’t remember a thing we ate, and couldn’t pronounce them if I could. But they were hot and filling and delicious. Gabriel, wanted a cheese sandwich, which they fixed for him. As 3-year-olds are wont, he grew cranky. So did his parents.
Suddenly, people came by the table, asking how we were, how’d we like the food and would be be able to get home for the holidays. These were other customers. Seems the waitress had spread the word of our weather delay. They sat across from us and told us about the Czech dishes we’d just eaten and how their mamas had made it better. Two young girls in their teens, gushing about how cute Gabriel was, rushed him off to ‘play with their cousins. Or something. It got a little strange until I realized – they were comforting us, making our lives a little easier. A truck driver, a grizzled guy in his 50s, told us the weather had grown worse up north. “I wouldn’t go farther if I was carrying a baby,” he said. Old men cooed their sadness we couldn’t make it ‘to your folks’ but advised we could still make it back to our own home.
It was strange. And immensely heart-warming. Here total strangers had come together to feed us (well, actually, we paid, but offers were made) and advised us and comforted us and our child. And we had just stopped in for a meal.
We left, with a lot of waves and a few hugs and climbed back into the car and drove south. Over the years, we stopped many more times in West for gas and kolaches but never went back to the Czech-American. I regret that now. And more so, I regret never letting the folks there know how much their kindness had meant to us.
So, now, in your time or sorrow and pain, I hope the people of West know you’re in our thoughts and we are thankful we came, for that brief moment, to know you.