I found out about the wreck on Facebook, not quite two weeks ago. I was just about to go to bed and checked game stores one last time. The TV news feed shared by a Sanderson alumnus jolted me awake.
“Not Iraan,” I thought.
Back in the day, Iraan and Sanderson were district rivals. One hundred West Texas deer and rabbit populated miles separates the two towns, but by our standards, that’s close to home. Close to 50 years later, I remember Iraan’s fancy gym and luxurious travel bus, how their town – like ours – was surrounded by scruffy hills. On the hill closest to the football field, was a giant white concrete “I” and somewhere near the school was the city park with a large-as-life (I guess) dinosaur, outfitted with a ladder for kids to climb.
My familiarity of Iraan includes knowing not only how to pronounce the name, but the fact it’s named for Ira and Ann Yates, who, if you know even a smidgen about the history of oil and gas production in West Texas, you know the significance of that name.
I don’t think my high school buds will argue with me if I say that a lot of times we were jealous of Iraan. They beat us in most competitions and seemed to have an edge. I remember getting off the band bus and breathing in the strong scent of oil in production.
“Money,” my dad called it. And that was one of our distinct differences. We were poor. Iraan wasn’t, not that we thought that mattered all that much.
But in the first hours of that Saturday morning, looking at the wreckage of the little bus and semi, I imagined unimaginable things, things even more horrible than what we would eventually learn, that the cheerleader sponsor, Liz Castenada Pope had been killed, her sister Christina Garlock, the bus driver, was seriously injured, as were six of the cheerleaders.
I actually thought how lucky we’ve been all these years because in the thousands of miles the hundreds of us travel on Friday nights there aren’t more serious or fatal accidents. But I grieved for this one especially, because by my stretch of imagination, Iraan is part of what I consider my West Texas home.
It hit closer to home in the days to follow. My sister-in-law had been Christina Castenada’s dear friend in high school. My high school classmates, Brenda and Bill Littleton, had taught and coached the Castenada sisters when they were in high school. The Iraan coach’s wife, Tammy Kirchhoff, is the daughter of Willie and Sara Myers, who had been our coach and teachers in the late ’60s at Sanderson. I remember when Tammy was in kindergarten.
Another Sanderson friend made a special point to be in the stands at Shotwell Stadium in Abilene for Iraan’s semi-final victory last week, and posted that Canon Andrews made the first touchdown for the Braves. The name clicked. Canon’s great aunt, Barbara Brown Wales, had also been an SHS classmate and was one of my roommates at Angelo State. “Canon” was his great-grandmother “Chich” Brown’s maiden name, and the connection made me smile.
Iraan is and always has been “the home of the Braves,” but the outpouring of support from across the state – and nation, even – in the days following the tragic wreck, showed us our best selves. Hundreds of cheerleaders from across Texas stood for the home team in last week’s game. The cheerleaders from Wellington, the opposing team at the semi-final game presented the Iraan school district a $3,000 check, money their school had collected during the week.
There are hundreds of touching stories of caring and compassion following the tragedy. It has been a heartening thing to see. A dose of what we needed in the days when so much turns into an argument – and the plain-as-day differences we see in one another are turned into hate instead of successful team play.
Time goes on. And life goes on. That’s not said to be harsh, but because it’s the victory Iraan will ultimately claim in the wake of its great tragedy.
This is being written before Iraan plays in the state championship game. I hope the Braves win. Regardless of the outcome, the memories of the 2016 season will be bittersweet for the team and the community, who have taught the rest of us that winning isn’t the only thing, and losing isn’t the worst.
But winning’s a very, very good thing – especially when the victors deserve it.
Editor’s note: Candace Cooksey Fulton is a freelance writer and columnist living in San Angelo, but formerly from Brownwood. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her columns are normally published in the Brownwood Bulletin on Sundays, but technical problems prevented this column from being published last Sunday.