My childhood memories of my dad’s cousin Buster Brown and his family mostly consist of laughter and a lot of lively boogie-woogie piano music. The Browns were a family of pianists. James H. (Buster) Brown, Sr., was my father’s cousin on his mother Petrea’s side. For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to everyone as cousins, but in reality many were “seconds” and/or “once removeds.” Standing next to my father in the featured family image are Buster and his wife Ethel (Honey).
Unfortunately, decades passed without my seeing much of the Browns; however, after I grew up, married, and had children, the Browns invited my parents, my sisters, me, and our families to attend family reunions, which they thoughtfully held near Bonham so my parents could attend. The ones we attended were held at Tanglewood Resort at Lake Texoma in north Texas in the 1990s and early 2000s. It was fun to reunite with family I hadn’t seen in a long time and to meet some family members for the first time; and I got to hear some more of that good ol’ boogie-woogie music again. I loved seeing Daddy in his advanced years as he reminisced with family, and the sights and sounds of my nearly blind mother Pat at the piano gave me chills. I regret that I can’t put my hands on most of the photos from these events.
Mother at the piano, Brown Reunion, Tanglewood Texoma, early 1990s
Daddy with his cousin Anna Marie, Brown Reunion, Tanglewood Texas, early 1990s
One reunion stands out in particular: my kids spent a lot of time in the swimming pool that year, and after dark my son Chris, who was about twelve years old, jumped into the pool and slammed heads with another resort guest. Chris’ head was bleeding and needed stitches. Cousin Fran and her son Jory and daughter Peggy accompanied me and Chris to the closest emergency room in Denison. Chris and his entourage were escorted to the treatment room — a large open area with different treatment stations spaced around the room. Chris’ doctor was friendly and funny, so our family of comedians got along quite well with him. In fact, the doctor reminded us all of Robin Williams. We all (even Chris) spent the next hour or two cracking wise and laughing it up in the ER. The room of doctors and nurses were either really enjoying the display or were about to call security on us. Chris withstood the constant harassment from all sides and braced himself for stitches in his head (or what “Dr. Robin Williams” abruptly announced would be staples). When the doctor picked up the staple gun to begin, he paused, then yelled across the room that he was going to need a bigger stapler. Chris cringed…then laughed, nervously.
It was very late when we got back to the resort, but a few cousins were politely waiting up for us. Oddly, this reunion and the trip to the ER was a great way for us cousins to get to know each other. It was a remarkable evening and night.
I have many wonderful aunts, uncles, and cousins. My mother had six brothers and sisters; but, like my three kids are now, they were scattered to the four winds, and I did not get to spend much, if any, time with them. Actually, my mother didn’t get to spend much time with them either, at least not after I was born. My father, on the other hand, had but one sibling – his brother Gordon, who lived in Dallas after I was born. He was six years older than Daddy. Uncle Gordon and Aunt Ruth had two beautiful daughters, Mary and Judy, who were closer in age to my sisters than to me.
Daddy (L), Gordon (R); 1914
L to R: Me, Daddy, Buster and Ethel Brown, Nancy (front), Aunt Ruth, Mother, Patsy, Uncle Gordon (back), cousins Judy and Mary; abt 1955
Daddy referred to Gordon as a sharp dresser and the “good-looking one.” Ruth was also beautiful and stylish. I remember her as thin with very long gray hair which she usually wore in a bun when I was very young. I think she eventually cut it short.
According to my cousins Mary and Judy, their family moved to Dallas twice. The first time was in the late 1940s. The last time was around 1952, when they moved from Oklahoma. My sister Patsy said they lived with us for about six weeks while looking for a place to live in 1952. I was two years old in 1952 and have no memory of their living with us. My sister Patsy tells the story of when Daddy’s car was stolen from our driveway while Gordon and family were living with us. Gordon answered the telephone when the police called our house in the middle of the night. They asked if he was Mr. Towner, and Gordon said, “Yes.” Half asleep, he continued speaking to the police for a minute, thinking he was still in Oklahoma. When asked if he had a 1949 Plymouth, he answered, “No, but my brother in Dallas does.” (Mother loved to tell this story.) Before 1954, our house had only two bedrooms and one very small bathroom, which made for very close living quarters for four adults and five girls. It must have been very challenging for all – or interesting, at the very least. Unfortunately, I have waited way too long to begin asking questions about this anecdote, and much has been lost in its telling.
My family visited my uncle’s house in north Dallas fairly often during the 1950s and 1960s. Their house was just on the north side of Bachman Lake from Love Field Airport, almost as far north as north Dallas got at the time. This was before DFW Airport existed, and commercial jet traffic was in its infancy. The air traffic pattern into and out of Love Field seemed to go directly overhead, and it got worse as air traffic increased during that time.
To get to their house before Stemmons Freeway (I-35) opened in 1959, we drove around the big Harry Hines traffic circle, then we drove east on Northwest Highway past Bachman Lake. Once, on a calm night as we drove toward their house after dark alongside Bachman Lake, a large wave of water splashed up from the lake onto the road and covered our car and the road. It startled my parents, who seemed to have no idea what had just happened. As far as I know they never found out. I was afraid as I listened to Mom and Dad talk excitedly about it. I was pretty sure it was the Loch Bachman Monster!
The Harry Hines traffic circle no longer exists today, but it was where Loop 12, US 77 (Harry Hines), 114, and Northwest Highway (Loop 12) converged. I can see younger Dallasites scratching their heads trying to picture this, and it is head-scratching worthy. I spent a good deal of time trying to remember or research just exactly what roads converged here. I searched online for maps and anything else that might help describe it. Then, it dawned on me that I have some very old files which belonged to my dad, and I remembered seeing maps in one of the files. When I looked, I found Dallas maps from 1958, 1965, 1967, and 1970. Voila!
Gordon’s and Ruth’s house was bigger than our house on Mt. Pleasant, or at least it seemed bigger to me, and it was always immaculate…and quiet, except for the planes overhead and probably when the Jim Towners came to visit. There was a formal living room in the front, which we never spent any time in. In the back of the house was the den with a pool table that had a formica cover, so it could be used as a dining table or, as my cousin Mary recalls, a flat surface to cut out sewing patterns. Mary also reminded me of the window seats in the den which they used for storing their comic books. I learned to play pool on their pool table. I played fetch with their two beautiful Collies in their large backyard, and I was also fascinated by their cockatiel. Ruth liked to sew, grow violets, and paint ceramics. Gordon had a greenhouse in the back yard, where he grew orchids, gloxinias and other delicate beauties. The greenhouse was enchanting and smelled of misty air and wet rich soil.
Mother and Dad didn’t leave me to go anywhere very often, even when I was nearly an adult. Once, when I was very young, I stayed with Gordon and Ruth for a few days. As I fell asleep one night, I heard what I was sure was a space ship or flying saucer fly right over the house. I yelled, and Ruth floated in quickly and quietly to assure me everything was OK. She tried unsuccessfully to convince me it was only an airplane at the busy nearby airport. A highlight of my stay was when Ruth made doll clothes for my Vogue Ginny doll. She didn’t just make a dress or two. She made practically a whole wardrobe – most of the clothes in the included photo. The vivid image in my mind is Aunt Ruth sitting at her sewing machine, head down, focused intently on the tiny togs. I wonder now if perhaps she gave me this doll specifically for this visit. I am certain I did not thank her appropriately for this treasured memory. I hope my mother did. I have kept all of these clothes in the same stationery box since she made them for me, only about sixty years ago.
Years later, Gordon and Ruth moved to another house in North Dallas – a house with the same street number as ours. I don’t know which came first – ours or theirs, but for a period of time, the brothers Towner had the same street number. Here Gordon had a standard Poodle name Lucky and two Bedlington Terriers, all of which were show dogs, I believe. For training purposes, he took Lucky to a small nearby indoor mall so Lucky could adjust to having a crowd of people around him.
Lucky could be a very intimidating sight. When groomed for show, he was especially big and black. Gordon owned a couple of laundromats in the Webb Chapel and Royal Lane area, and he made regular rounds to collect change from the machines. He took Lucky with him as protection. He draped Lucky’s leash on top of one of the washers near the front of the store and began collecting the money from the machines. There was one time when a man of a suspicious nature walked in without any laundry and began walking to the back where Gordon was. Dutiful Lucky wouldn’t let the man pass. He stood guard, growling and baring his big white teeth against his black jaws. The man turned and left without incident.
Sadly, I have very few photos from those days of Uncle Gordon, Aunt Ruth, and cousins Judy and Mary, which is a mystery to me, since my father was such a shutter-bug. I am sure my sisters have many more detailed memories than I have about our visits with them. I was too young to hang around with the older girls, and I was also probably a nuisance.
Continuing the JFK assassination theme, this is the third excerpt from my book, Tina Towner, My story as the youngest photographer at the Kennedy Assassination, which I self-published in November 2012:
Excerpt from Chapter 2, 1963 The President Comes to Dallas:
My first thought [after hearing the gunshots] was that someone was throwing firecrackers out of a building window. I wasn’t the only one who thought that. When I heard the first gunshot, there had been enough time for me to move back toward or onto the curb. I stopped and looked up at the buildings to see where the sounds were coming from. I didn’t see anything, but I didn’t know what I was looking for. I heard three gunshots, and sometime between the first and last, an unknown man grabbed my arm and pulled me to the ground. He held onto my arm until he though it was safe to get up. I wish I knew his identity….
Everything happened very fast. The aftermath was very confusing, but I was not afraid. I got up off the ground and connected with my parents. The three of us stood quietly together for a few seconds amid the sirens and chaos, as we looked down from the plaza toward the triple underpass. Daddy calmly stated that he knew exactly what had just happened – someone just tried to shoot the president with a high-powered rifle, which he recognized from his Army training. He remained extremely calm throughout the entire ordeal. We all three did….
Many people ran toward the grassy knoll and behind it where there were railroad tracks. Daddy took his camera and followed the crowd….When he finally returned, he brought with him a grim report.
Daddy took three more photographs while he was away from Mother and me, making a total of four color photos….He probably regretted not taking as many photos as possible, although I never heard him say so.
I do not remember whether Daddy asked me before he went down the hill or after he returned, but he calmly asked me if I had used up all of the film in the movie camera. I told him I had not yet heard the film clicking inside the camera, so he told me to keep filming and to pan slowly up and down Elm until I heard the film run out inside the camera. After I finished using up the rest of my film, I took my place beside Mother, and we patiently waited together as we watched the nightmare unfold around us.
As I continue to recognize the upcoming anniversary of the JFK assassination, the following is the second excerpt (of several) from my book, Tina Towner, My story as the youngest photographer at the Kennedy assassination.
Excerpt from Chapter 2, 1963 President Kennedy Comes to Dallas:
In October, 1963, Daddy read an article in the local newspaper reporting President Kennedy’s scheduled trip to Dallas in November. I don’t know if Daddy voted for Kennedy, but he seemed to like him OK, and I think he would have wanted to see the presidential motorcade, regardless of who the president was. I knew nothing about politics and only read the newspaper when required to by a teacher as a school assignment, but I did know who President Kennedy was….
I probably wasn’t as enthused about the president’s visit as my parents would have liked me to be, but a week or two before the president’s scheduled trip to Dallas, Daddy asked me if I wanted to get out of school to go with him and Mother to see the presidential motorcade. I jumped at the chance….
Prior to the scheduled motorcade, a public announcement indicated that going to see the presidential motorcade would be an excused absence from public school….I was in the eighth grade. My mother wrote an excuse for me to give to the school’s attendance office, and my parents picked me up from school around 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. I heard there were a few other students doing the same thing, but I didn’t know any of them by name….
Friday, November 22, 1963, was a pretty day. It was partly cloudy and cool. Some reports said it was a warm and sunny fall day, but it was cool enough for me to wear my blue sweater, which is visible in some photographs taken by other amateur photographers at the site. We drove from Oak Cliff across the Houston Street viaduct toward downtown Dallas, only six or seven miles from our house. Daddy had already decided where he wanted to go to watch the motorcade. He thought the best place would be at the end of the motorcade route, at or near the Elm and Houston intersection. He believed it would be less crowded there, parking would be free at the nearby Union Terminal, and we could walk to the site from our car. After turning the corner onto Elm from Houston and passing by the grassy knoll area, the motorcade would disappear under the triple underpass, enter Stemmons Freeway, and head toward its next stop at the Dallas Trade Mart for a luncheon where President Kennedy was scheduled to speak.
In 1963, Union Terminal was a very busy train terminal located where Union Station is today. We parked in a large parking lot on the west side of the terminal and walked through Union Terminal, which smelled heavily of exhaust fumes. We continued walking north on Houston to the corner of Houston and Elm. From our car, the walk through the parking lot and train terminal was at least a couple of blocks. It was then approximately another four blocks to Elm Street.
We arrived at our chosen spot early, around 11:00 a.m. The motorcade was scheduled to arrive around 12:30 p.m. Daddy said his first choice for a good vantage point was on Elm Street about halfway down the hill from Houston toward the triple underpass. He thought that location would allow us a clear view of Kennedy’s motorcade as it came down the hill from Houston, and he would have more time to focus the camera. However, I began to feel queasy standing in the sun, so we stayed up on the plaza where there was a little shade that Mother and I could sit in while we waited. We picked our spot on the corner; but Daddy still wanted to check out the area farther down the hill to make sure there wasn’t a better location for us. He decided we could stay where we were, and we planted ourselves on the southwest corner of Elm and Houston, directly across Elm from the Texas School Book Depository building. While we waited, Mother and I took turns sitting on a small, green, folding camping stool we brought with us for that purpose. Like most the men that day, Daddy was dressed in a suit and tie; Mother and I were each in a sweater and skirt, and I was wearing bobby sox and flats.
As we waited for the motorcade, I recall that Daddy looked up at the buildings on “our” corner and observed a number of people looking out of the windows. He commented that they really had birds’ eye views and specifically mentioned watching one woman lean out of the window in a building catercorner to the Texas School Book Depository building. In our oral history recorded by the Museum in March 1996, Daddy stated that most of the windows in the TSBD had the shades pulled down. He also stated, as he had stated several times over the years to family and friends, that he told a uniformed police officer standing next to him that he saw a man in a white coat standing in a sixth floor window. Several times over the decades, Daddy repeated that the police officer saw this person, too….
As the motorcade finally approached, Daddy, Mother, and I took positions next to each other on the corner around which the motorcade would turn. Daddy asked a uniformed police officer for permission to step off the curb (which has since been removed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act), and we stepped into the street….Standing to my left, almost elbow to elbow with me but a step behind, Daddy opened the viewfinder on the top of his Yashica camera, pushed the magnifier out of the way, held the camera up to his face, looked through the hole in the viewfinder, and captured one magnificent color photograph of the presidential limousine. At the same time, I took 8 mm movies with the Sears Tower Varizoom movie camera….I looked through the viewfinder, as Daddy taught me to do, and smoothly panned the camera in motion with the limousine, as it turned left onto Elm directly in front of and around me….
Because of the obtuse angle of the Houston and Elm corner, the presidential limo began to disappear down the hill into the crowd to my left. I continued filming until I could see only the back of the limousine. The meter on the movie camera was broken, which we were already aware of, and Daddy told me earlier that I would know when the film ran out when I heard the clicking sound of the film inside the camera. He knew before we left home that the reel of film in the movie camera was nearing the end; however, he was confident I would have plenty of film for what I needed. Under expected circumstances, this would have been true.
After the limo passed us by, bystanders on our corner began to move back up onto the curb, and many of them turned and started following the president’s limo down the hill. Both of my parents began to walk away from where I continued filming a few seconds longer….
I believe Daddy was about to head down the hill to get another photo, but there was not enough time before the first gunshot sounded – only a second or two, if that, after I stopped filming….
In recognition of the upcoming anniversary of the JFK assassination, the following is the first of what will be several blog posts containing excerpts from my book, Tina Towner, My story as the youngest photographer at the Kennedy assassination, which I began writing on December 26, 2009, and self-published in November 2012.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
On November 22, 1963, I was an eyewitness to the John F. Kennedy assassination. I stood with my parents James M. and Patricia D. Towner in Dealey Plaza on the southwest corner of Elm and Houston streets, directly across Elm Street from the Texas School Book Depository building. My parents were fifty years old. I was thirteen and, as far as I know, the youngest photographer at that tragic event.
At the site that day, my father took a total of four color transparencies using a Yashica 44 twin lens camera. At the same time he was photographing the presidential limousine, I was taking 8 mm color home movies with a Sears Tower Varizoom movie camera. Daddy taught me how to use the movie camera as soon as we got it, so I was experienced with handling it….The first of Daddy’s four photos is of the presidential limousine as it turned the corner around us. This remarkable historic photograph, originally a color image, is…prominently displayed in black and white in The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza….
In my presence, someone asked Gary Mack [deceased July 15, 2015], curator of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, what my story was, and he replied, “Tina’s story is that she doesn’t have one.” He put into words exactly how I felt….
In February 2015 I donated the Towner photographs, film, and both cameras to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. Doing this was basically my hope since the museum opened its doors on Presidents Day in 1989. The late Gary Mack was the museum’s curator at the time of my donation; and he and the museum had been hoping quietly and patiently for years for me to make this decision, which I did only months before Gary died in 2015. The donation was finalized in February, and Gary was able to review, catalog, and make his Curator Notes on the Towner Collection before he passed away. The timing of how the donation process unfolded says to me that the donation was meant to be, and the materials are now where they were destined to be.
Iinterrupt this program… I have decided to insert the following cost of living information into the stream of my posts. In my father’s files, I found a collection of VERY old files that I actually didn’t remember I had. This post is a recap of what I found:
1943 – Monthly health insurance premium for Daddy was $4.14; for Mother, the premium started out at $2.50 and went up to $7.50 in April 1943; Patsy (who was three years old), $5.04. Piano rental was $7.00/month. Daddy had a line item in his monthly budget for milk ranging from $8/month to $11+/month for the family.
1946 – Bought a new house on Mt. Pleasant in Oak Cliff, Dallas, for $12,000. This is the house we were living in when I was born. We lived there until 1962.
1947-48 – While working for U. S. Gypsum Company, Daddy grossed $300/month in 1947, which increase to $350.00/month in May 1948.
1950 – A receipt from Methodist Hospital for my birth shows a total charge of $71.85, including three days room and board, anesthesia, pharmaceuticals, and baby care.
1951 – In January Daddy grossed $350/month. In August 1951 he grossed $425/month.
1960s – Daddy worked for Robert S. Watson construction in the 1960s, and payroll check stubs indicate that in January 1960 he made $165/week ($8,580/year), and in April 1961 he made $230/week ($11,960).
His check book stubs from 1945 are interesting:
May 7, 1945 Southern Bell Telephone $9.94
May 7, 1945 Rent 50.00
May 8, 1945 Beauty College Permanent 12.25
May 12, 1945 Berkson’s(?) Dress for mother 7.09
May 21, 1945 Cole Bros. Clothes 20.00
May 23, 1945 Cole Bros Shoes 15.00
June 1, 1945 So. Bell Telephone 1.64
June 1, 1945 Florida Power 5.00
June 1, 1945 Doctor 4.00
In 1954 Daddy remodeled the house on Mt. Pleasant in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas. Specifications for that project indicate the cost was or was estimated to be $2,225.00. I was too young to remember this project in progress, but it included enclosing the front porch and making it part of the kitchen, new linoleum flooring in the kitchen, converting the garage into a bedroom, and a new front door with new orientation. He bought 60 sq. yards of carpet and pad from Sears which cost $498, including installation. They bought a new Davis couch for $299.00. (I assume this was the scratchy couch my sisters and I remember so well.)