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Toxic Town USA - Part Four

Updated: May 27, 2018


Dustbowl storm over Texas 1935.
Photo courtesy of NOAA George E. Marsh Album

Although Erick was never really part of the dust bowl, it was close. As a child living in Sayre less than sixteen miles to the east, I can recall some epic dust storms there in the early 60s obscuring the sky, lifting and hurling sands of the North Fork of the Red River up and over the Route 66 bridge spanning its wide, dry bed in a thick, roaring, serpentine hump. Nothing comparable to storms of the 1930s but heavy enough to dim the midday sun and leave little piles of fine, red dust in the corners of my bedroom closet where my mother didn't think to clean after a big blow subsided. And even though Harley and Annabelle were not born early enough to live and work within the realm of the Dust Bowl for the decade of its dirty imposition, they did live and work through more than a decade of dreadful imposition applied within a particularly hostile social environment. The dirt storms of the Dust Bowl were impersonal natural disasters of carelessly loosened earth stirred up by relentless winds into vast skies. The fourteen year storm Harley and Annabelle hunkered down against, endured and survived were personally targeted disasters of specifically directed hatred stirred up by bigots into vast social spaces.

Before that storm of bigotry began to stir a few years after the turn of the century, signs of things to come were looking great for Harley and Annabelle. Between 2001 and 2003, their new gig was steadily growing by leaps and bounds along with their niche notoriety as a must-see Route 66 attraction. They had even been researched by Pixar Animation Studios as possible models for characters in the movie Cars. After my recovery between 2001 and 2005 from loss of gainful dotcom industry employment, I rarely had chance to visit them as their success mounted. By the time I finally got around to twisting off from employed life to start my own company in 2006, Cars had been released and by then I had begun thinking through details of how to make the documentary about them, deciding I should drive to Erick and talk it over at length with them in person to discover how we might best accomplish it together. I wanted them involved intimately and organically in the process during the recording phase of work, not just actors I was pointing the camera and mics at as they worked. After that, I planned to keep them thoroughly in the loop remotely as I cranked out each segment of the documentary working in my remote home studio far away from every distraction of civilization. So as soon as I was settled into the studio, I made the 380 mile trip eastward to Erick.

We spent a few days talking it over thoroughly and using a cheap little digital camera I had just purchased that could capture stills as well as video clips, I watched and recorded them greeting, entertaining and sending off several cheerful groups of tourists of various sizes to get an idea of how I could best capture their story. A key bit of video captured at that time was recorded as they opened a box shipped to them from Pixar/Disney Studios containing a selection of swag and a thank you card from Pixar staff who had visited them during their research outings on Route 66 in previous years.

That small bit of rough test video and audio cemented my conviction that the story of Harley & Annabelle was one well worth the effort to capture and share with the world in the form of a feature-length documentary. As grainy as it is, that video was included in the documentary, appearing as a bonus clip at the end of it.

Considering I was not a professional camera operator and only slightly better than amateur sound engineer, I knew I would have to capture much more video and audio than I would actually end up using in the final product. A lot more. Only dozens of hours of video and audio, as well as a ton of photographs might yield enough footage of good quality for use in the final product. We three finally decided the only practical way to get it done would be for me to move in with them for the duration of the recording phase armed with very portable audio/video/photo equipment so I could rush out with them as they greeted a group, intermingle with everyone while they entertained the group, and then emerge with everyone as they sent them off back onto the Mother Road to continue their journey. I had to be both mobile and agile while capturing recordings to keep up with the action and to move nimbly around and within it as it all unfolded.

I began sweating the details around the clock–even in my dreams during my typical four hour stretches of deep sleep–as I always do on every creative project I have ever worked on, and there were so many details. I had to research and purchase gear I could afford which would serve my purposes including new computers and software as well as cameras and associated hardware. Then I had to learn to use all of that new equipment and software as thoroughly as possible to produce as fine a product as I could on a shoestring project budget which was only large enough to pay for a crew of one: me. But my numerous details were nothing compared to the number and complexity of details Harley and Annabelle were constantly sweating. They gathered and meticulously arranged their tremendous collection of antique Americana with great attention to detail, creating a venue of impressive visual proportions to compliment their performances in a pleasing, inviting atmosphere their visitors could not help enjoying. Their carefully crafted venue and collection of antiques was so engaging I had trouble avoiding a tendency to focus on all of it instead of on the two talented entertainers and their rapt audiences of visitors.

The 2006 observation phase was an eye opener for me. Harley and Annabelle had considered every aspect of their visitor's needs no matter what group size they were entertaining and had gently but firmly helped the larger tour group managers understand details of their own needs as well so that the experience they provided tourists in and around the Sandhills Curiosity Shop would be maximized in as many positive ways as possible to offset the few negative aspects they all had to deal with which could not be avoided.

The most immediate negative aspects involved time and environmental conditions including tour group managers providing ample warning prior to arrival of their groups at the Sandhills Curiosity Shop so Harley and Annabelle could properly prepare for them, as well as sundry logistical aspects. Taking measures to mitigate sweltering summertime heat inside their shop was one environmentally negative aspect to deal with and yet Harley and Annabelle found ways to turn this negative aspect to their advantage by putting their large collection of antique electric fans and lots of wind-activated antique signs and banners to work inside the shop to add elements of movement to it. Lots of electric fans of all eras and sizes essential to keep the inside temperature of their shop bearable were skillfully placed and pointed to make various things hung from the ceiling move in pleasant, eye-attracting ways. Eventually, Harley even purchased an industrial-size floor fan and placed it strategically for maximum effect, as they did with absolutely every item and detail associated with their venue and performances–details numbering in the hundreds. And as time passed, another significantly negative environmental aspect began to emerge.

Local negative influences of a select group of petty bigots eventually raised its ugly head, casting a dark pall over their unique business operations as the number of tourists and size of organized tour groups visiting the Sandhills Curiosity Shop increased exponentially. Their workload increased naturally and proportionally from that growth as did unnatural stress levels associated with concerted greed and hate-driven efforts to knock them out of their hard-earned success trajectory.

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