Parched town receives a flood of charity

As heat in Southwest dries up town's water supply, volunteers race to build a pipeline.

It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon under a cloudless sky. The thermometer reads 107 F., but Russ Lane's crew is working fast and furious.

They're laying pipe, lifting up sections of the blue plastic tubing, slathering on a generous amount of glue, and then moving on to the next section, 12 feet away.

It's sweaty, monotonous work, but the laborers are many and the reward is great. Along with dozens of other volunteers - many from the farthest corners of Texas - Mr. Lane and his men are trying to save the tiny town of Throckmorton. With only 60 days of water left in the local reservoir, these workers must connect Throckmorton to the nearest water source, a water tank some 21 miles away. And they have to do it 12 feet at a time.

Lane, a ponytailed plumber from Austin, put his business on hold and drove more than 300 miles to help out. High-schoolers Ashley Bowlin and Annie Nutt are spending their vacation ferrying wet towels and cold water to the trenches. And Julia Keeter has women from the local churches baking apple pies and Bundt cakes for dessert.

At a time when employees regularly jump from company to company in search of better pay, and companies leave towns for cheaper labor, the story unfolding in Throckmorton is a contrarian tale of unselfishness. For the state of Texas, it's a unifying event during a time of triple-digit temperatures. But for the 1,036 residents of this town on the rolling plains of north Texas, it's proof that some age-old notions of community are unbroken.

"It's pulling this community together," says Kelly Bowlin, manning the phones down at City Hall. "I heard somebody in church say that God is going to wait until this is done, and pulled everyone together, and then he's going to let it rain so we won't have to use it. I kind of like that."

Throughout the Southwest, the long pattern of dry weather is having a powerful effect on communities large and small. Most major Texas cities, including Houston, Dallas, Abilene, and Austin, are under some form of water restrictions. Some, particularly Houston, have reported an upswing in deaths linked to the high heat.

Yet only Throckmorton, a tiny farm town west of Fort Worth, is in danger of running out of water this summer, and it's a situation that has called for swift action.

Sometimes it takes an emergency like this to pull a community together, Mrs. Bowlin says. While her daughter has been helping deliver cold water, the Texas Baptist Men's Association of Wichita Falls - which generally provides emergency relief for natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes - has chipped in by offering free meals. Moreover, many residents are providing rooms for the outside volunteers, who have come from as far away as Texarkana and Longview.

Small towns and major corporations have pitched in as well.

The Caterpillar construction company, for instance, has donated a new backhoe, and the towns of Comanche, Seymour, Haskell, and Breckinridge have donated equipment and personnel to help dig trenches and lay line. Even convicts from the Jones County jail and the state prison in Abilene are helping.

It should take three weeks to lay 21 miles of pipe, and another few weeks to build a pump station, but Steve Bowlin, the city's public works director, says he's confident the city will be able to pump 125,000 gallons of water into Throckmorton to meet the city's basic water needs. Still, the city won't be completely out of trouble, even with the extra water, he adds.

"All this is going to do is keep you able to bathe, drink, and flush," he says. "We've had a drought for a long time, and unless we get some rain, this is not going to solve our problems completely."

Out on his backhoe, Russell Flannery of Rule, Texas, explains why he's driven 35 miles to help out. "I figure if I got in a jam, maybe someone will help me out."

Across the road, Sam Cunningham, a city employee from Comanche, says he's been working 12-hour days all week. The exception was Wednesday. "I was invited by some townspeople for a steak supper," he smiles. "So I went."

In Lane's crew, John Crank of Dallas explains that he got sent here by his parents because he had turned down a summer job.

"My dad was watching TV one day, so he called out here to see if they needed help, and here I am," he says, brushing dust off his jeans.

Still, he says it's gratifying to help people out, and "all the people are really nice."

In the hardware stores, beauty parlors, and motels around downtown Throckmorton, townspeople couldn't be more pleased about the generosity of outsiders.

Tim Taylor, who moved here from Dallas 15 years ago - and therefore is still an outsider - describes his fellow Throckmortonians as "hardworking people, tough people, good people.

"They work out in the heat, the weather, the cold, and they all pull together and get things done," he says.

Next door, at Pitsy's Beauty Shop, Pitsy Broyles says, "I think it's great that people are that concerned to give us help," adding, "We need it."

Lane is happy to give them a hand, even if it does mean abandoning his plumbing paycheck for a week. "It's about giving back what's been given to you," he says. "It's not about the money. If it's about the money, then you're already losing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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