Hometown: Texarkana

Toeing the line in this border town

THE ENTIRETY OF WHAT I KNOW about Texarkana could be written in one sentence: It is a town shared by the two states of Texas and Arkansas. Thus the name. I’m a genius, I know. And for some reason, when it came time to embark on this particular journey, my brain was uncharacteristically lackluster in digging up the scoop on the town. Luckily, I got steered toward Dane Peavy, a local coach who took his community baseball team to the national championship—and won.

But even when I reached out to Dane, my mind got its signals crossed: “I caught wind of your amazing Little League World Series win,” I wrote him. Actually, he corrected me, “We are a group of young men 17-19.” It was the American Legion World Series they won. That’s a distinction no self-respecting Southerner should get wrong; I was on my way to getting tarred and feathered before I even set foot in town.

Would I be able to keep my wits about me and not step over the line while visiting the town that permanently straddles a very big line? I could only hope so.

9:50 a.m.

I arrive at Bobby Ferguson Park, where a gaggle of geese block my entry into the parking lot. They wobble along, making it perfectly clear I’m nosing my way into their territory. There’s a beautiful pavilion on a manmade lake, with little bridges crossing from the gravel lot to the playground just across the water. It’s drizzling, and when I get out of my Mercury, the geese come to me, squawking for bread, a demand of payment in return for my invasion.

Of course, I have none.

And neither does Dane, who pulls up soon after in his white SUV. I know him immediately—with his white baseball cap, close-trimmed beard and mustache, and gigantic diamond-encrusted championship baseball ring, how could I mistake him?

“I’m Heather,” I say, extending my hand.

“I’m Dane,” he replies, his ring proving to be almost as big as my (admittedly somewhat small) palm.

Dane tells me Bobby Ferguson Park has been around for almost 50 years, and that it’s best known for its pavilion where lots of weddings take place. We walk through the mist, across the bridge, to the open-sided, two-tiered gazebo. “I can see why this is so popular,” I say, watching geese gather on the shore, where, even on a wet, cold day, a lady is feeding the birds from a bread bag.

“I wanted to start here,” Dane says, “because this is where I got taken as a kid. We fed ducks and played and stuff.”

Some of that “stuff” is still going on today: A young father guides his pig-tailed daughter to the playground. Accompanied by his sweatered dog, an older gentleman walks the trails. A middle-aged man in overalls fishes in the lake. “A little rain isn’t going to keep people away,” Dane says.

And he would know. While Dane currently lives in Shreveport, teaching at Airline High School and coaching baseball during the school year, he returns to his hometown of Texarkana every summer to coach the town’s American Legion Baseball team. After graduating from Texarkana’s Arkansas High in 2003, Dane went up to Illinois to play college baseball. “I needed to get away, get some culture,” he says of his time up north. “It was very enjoyable.” But when he happily returned home, it was coaching Texarkana’s American Legion team that brought him the greatest joy. “Winning was a great feeling,” he says of his team’s national victory this past summer (his was the first Arkansas team to win in the entire history of the 90-year-old tournament), “but I’m so proud my dad got to see it.”

Dane’s dad actually started the Junior American Legion in Texarkana, and just this year was inducted into the Arkansas American Legion Hall of Fame. Dane got his American Legion start back in high school, as did his younger brother, who now helps Dane coach his championship team. “I hope someday to coach my own kid,” Dane muses, as brilliantly green-capped mallard ducks swim by.

10:33 a.m.

The “Original City Historic District” on East Broad Street links past to present, dilapidated to restored, exotic to mundane. Dane proudly points out the American Legion Building, a simple white brick affair, which sits close to an elaborate “Greetings from Texarkana” mural painted in the classic postcard style. Nearby, the Zapata Grill shares road space with Verona Italian Restaurant and TLC Burger and Fries. And Broad Street Park—a little enclave that occupies a space where a building used to be—celebrates the “New Long Distance Telephone Co.” and the “Jefferson Coffee Shop” with nostalgic signs overlooking rubberized picnic benches.

“Some people think of Texarkana as a medium-sized town,” Dane says, standing on the rounded brick amphitheater of the park. “I think of it as a small town.” Texarkana, Arkansas, has just over 30,000 people, which, true enough, probably makes it closer to a medium-sized town. But when you factor in the population of Texarkana, Texas—37,442—Texarkana is not quite a city, but a large town, to be sure.

And the population of the Texas side of town should be taken into account; after all, the two communities are only separated by a single street. Many of the two towns’ amenities—as well as their necessities—are joint resources. Dane drives me up State Line Avenue, showing me one such example: The grand U.S. Post Office and Courthouse sits right in the middle of the divide, its four columns and three arches centered squarely on the state border. “It’s the only federal building in the country that’s shared by two different states,” Dane tells me. We stop and I take a selfie—with one foot in each state.

I’m not sure this is what Johnny Cash meant when he sang “I Walk the Line,” but both he and Elvis performed at the historic Saenger Theatre—now known as the Perot Theatre—on the Texas side of town in the 1950s. And just down the road is a huge mural depicting Texarkana native Scott Joplin, “the Father of Ragtime.” Texarkana is no slouch when it comes to musical references, and the artists name-checking the border town in their songs range from the surfer-pop Beach Boys to iconic peapicker Tennessee Ernie Ford to alt-rock super group R.E.M.

When we get back into Dane’s car, he turns on his stereo. He’s got some hard-rock-slash-country hybrid going on. “We can listen to whatever you’d like,” Dane says. “I let the passenger do the music in my car.”

“I want to listen to what you want to listen to,” I reply. And I let my preconceived notions of genre go, basking in the boundary-crossing beats.

11:15 a.m.

I think we’re in Texas now. We see a monument to Texarkana natives who died in combat: a tall, round column that reminds me of other, older monuments I’ve seen in Europe. Another war monument—a wall that celebrates Korean and Vietnam War vets—is in Arkansas, I think. I don’t really know. And that’s part of what makes Texarkana great: that you can be in one state or the other and it doesn’t really matter.

Unless you’re talking about the rivalry between the high schools.

See, Arkansas High is, well, on the Arkansas side of Texarkana, and you can make your own assumptions about Texas High (you’ll be right). Arkansas High—from which the University of Arkansas got their mascot—is used to having their Razorback rear ends handed to them by the Texas High Tigers. That is, until the past couple of weeks, when it was announced that Arkansas High had hired Texas High’s head football coach right out from under them. The town is just abuzz with anticipation as to what the fall will bring.

And in this matter, the lines are clearly drawn. All up and down State Line Avenue, lampposts boast Texas flags on one side and Arkansas flags on the other. And when we enter Daylight Donuts, the Razorback flag, and Razorback pennant, and Razorback glass plaque, indicate that we are clearly back in Arkansas.

Dane wasn’t planning to bring me here, but he caught me surreptitiously snapping a shot of my favorite consumable.

“We can stop if you want,” he offers.

“No,” I reply. “I’m good.”

“I haven’t had breakfast,” he says, slowing the car. “And we don’t eat for another hour.”

“We need a donut,” I confirm, and he pulls into the drive.

12:25 p.m.

The gastronomic opportunities in Texarkana are wide-ranging. As we drive through Ed Worrell Park, where Dane played baseball in high school, he remembers the frantic stops he and his high-school buddies would make at the gas station for Chex Mix and Jungle Juice. As we drive back down State Line, there’s a Little Caesar’s on the Texas side, Starbucks on the Arkansas side, Kentucky Fried Chicken in Texas and Whattaburger in Arkansas. And then, in a brick strip mall, there is our lunch destination: the Old Tyme Burger Shoppe.

Its sign is in a classic font, all-caps, and its windows half-covered with red-checkered, rod-pocket, old-timey curtains. They’re actually closed today, Sunday, but Dane talked them into opening up, special, just for me. Marcia Collins greets us at the glass door, her blonde hair beautifully cropped and bangle bracelets dangling from her wrist. She tells me that in 1991, her husband, Tom, and her brother Randy bought the place together, “and it’s been amazing ever since!”

Marcia’s other brother Jerry now has his hands in the business, too, and ever since Tom passed away three years ago, Marcia’s son, Tom Jr., has been doing the cooking for the restaurant. Marcia ran a credit union for 30 years before retiring, and she now has five grandbabies who all live in Texarkana. “I think it’s a good place to raise your children,” she says. “It’s been a blessing.”

Marcia and Jerry joke about the rivalry between the Texas and Arkansas sides that they themselves experienced growing up in the town. “I think,” Jerry says, “back in the ’50s, the Saturday Evening Post did a story about the rivalry. Somebody cut off a hog’s head and put it on a spike downtown.” Marcia went to Arkansas High while her husband,  Tom, went to Texas. Texas had beat Arkansas forever, but their senior year, Tom made a bad play and Arkansas won. When Marcia brought Tom to an Arkansas High reunion, everyone thanked Tom for his bad job. “They never let him forget it!” she laughs.
When Tom the younger brings out the hamburgers, they look exactly like I’d expect from this classic eatery. Served on a white oval plate, the bun shimmers and I can practically hear the crispness of the French fries. And when I bite down, the toasted bun has just the right amount of butter.

“It’s delicious,” I say.

I get lots of “mmmmhmmmms” in return as mouths are clearly full.

The youngest brother, Randy, then walks in the door. He tells me that he feels the success of the family’s restaurant is built on a “sense of togetherness.”

I have to agree. Jerry goes on to tell me about the dozen businessmen who come in every morning at 6:30 and occupy an entire table and share their coffee time. Randy tells me about the local shelter kids they feed for free once a month. Marcia brags on her brothers, and the family pride is palpable.

I see pictures on the wall of this trio when they were kids. I see pictures of their parents and their kids. I see pictures of customers they’ve served—from Miss Texarkanas to theatre kids to those who are no longer with us. And I feel this sense of serving not just those you’re used to, but anyone who needs it.

“Randy is just so great at including everyone, making everyone feel at home,” Jerry says. And then they serve me some of the best chocolate pie with homemade meringue that I’ve ever had. I just can’t get over that they took time out of their day off to get the whole family together to give me a meal. A great meal. And even better company.

After more than an hour and a half of food and fellowship, Dane and I thank them for their time and head back to his car. To listen to another rock-slash-country smash.

1:45 p.m.

“I hope you got enough information today,” Dane tells me, intermittently tapping his ring on his steering wheel. Texas flashes on my right as we head south back to Bobby Ferguson Park. Arkansas stands sentinel on my left, luring me back home.

I have to say that what I learned today is that borders do, actually, a town make. But it’s not so much the divide that shows me the character of a place, but rather how people react to the divide. Texarkana is filled with people who embrace such a line: Musicians immortalize it, movies record it, books glorify it. And while the people living there toy with the idea of separation, when it comes right down to it, they embrace everyone, regardless of which side of the boundary one is supposed to belong to.

The geese surround me again. I don’t think they thought I was invading their territory, after all. I think they just wanted to share a meal with me. Next time, I’ll bring bread.