Waco: Self-Proclaimed 'Buckle of the Bible Belt''

March 07, 1993|By LAURA LIPPMAN

When I interviewed for a job at the Waco Tribune-Herald i 1981, each editor told me two things about the town that would be my home for the next 27 months:

"It's a good place to raise children."

And, "You know, they call this the buckle on the Bible Belt."

Well, you reap what you sow. (Actually, "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap," Galatians 6:7.) In a region that takes pride in being the Biblical buckle, the God-fearing populace often has its faith put to severe tests.

That's not to suggest that Wacoans deserve this fate, only that their religious orientation helps them to survive it. You see, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians are simply the latest saga in a place that has had more than its share of strange sights and grim happenings. Central Texas -- Waco and its surrounding counties -- has a serious unlucky streak.

Understandably, the city would like to be famous for its more benign aspects. Baylor University. The birth of Dr Pepper. The university library dedicated to Robert Browning. The suspension bridge, a forerunner of the Brooklyn Bridge. Claims to such luminaries as Steve Martin and Texas Gov. Ann Richards, born just outside town. Willie Nelson got his performing start up the road.

Still, Waco has a peculiar talent for tragedy. In the 1950s, one of the worst single tornadoes in history killed 114 people and leveled downtown. In the early 1980s, the area was still blighted, a ghost town that had resisted every attempt at revival.

Over the next two years, I saw and reported on stories in that sleepy region that would shock any big city. They included:

* A vicious triple murder, the kind of crime whose details are too gruesome to report. The slayings stumped law officials because of the seeming randomness. Ultimately, they would figure out the crime was a killing-for-hire. The contractors, vicious but incompetent, had killed the wrong people, obscuring the motive.

* To the west of Waco, a man embittered by his divorce ended a weekend visit with his two children by lacing their food with cyanide. The boy and girl arrived at the emergency room while their mother, a nurse, was still on duty.

* To the east, a 14-year-old girl enlisted her boyfriend to help kill her mother. They tried shooting her, beating her with a pipe wrench, then finally smothered her in a plastic bag. They dumped the body in a state park and went out for chili.

* To the south, a teen-age boy shot his mother to death in a quarrel over his report card.

* And to the north, a "mountain man" enjoyed a brief spurt of celebrity when law officers suspected he had murdered dozens of people and buried them in the woods. Burton Merrill -- a forerunner to Henry Lee Lucas, another serial killer of dubious legitimacy -- ended up being charged with killing one acquaintance. From his jail cell, he wondered if Kenny Rogers would be interested in playing him in a television movie.

The counterpoint to this were the traveling preachers. You didn't have to be Baptist -- close to Waco's official religion -- to appreciate the sermons preached in auditoriums, church basements and tents. In fact, given the context, these fire-and-brimstone railings helped to make sense of the world.

I saw Rick Stanley, cashing in on his celebrity as Elvis Presley's stepbrother, deliver a terrific talk on why trying to avoid sin in the modern world was like trying not to order Mexican food at Taco Bell. A convict-turned-preacher -- his name escapes me -- attempted to lead his young audience to Jesus with hellish descriptions of his life as a drug addict, including precise instructions on how to inject cocaine under the tongue.

But my favorite was Lester Roloff, who responded to a question about school prayer by taking my hand in his, staring deep into my eyes and asking: "Laura, are you a Jew?" (The Reverend Roloff, quite famous within the Lone Star State, would later die in a plane crash in a horrible thunderstorm on Election Day 1982.)

Ten years ago, one of my colleagues at the Waco Tribune-Herald -- a paper whose exhaustive reporting on the Branch Davidians is instructive to anyone interested in cults -- specialized in "what-if" articles.

What if Waco were ground zero in a nuclear attack, for example. What if it rained long and hard enough for the Brazos River to overflow its banks? The stories were interesting and well-done, but seemed a little silly at the time.

Well, I still don't believe Waco will be ground zero, especially given recent global developments. But the prospects for a flood of Biblical proportions seem more likely to me now.

Poor Waco. It really deserves to be known for Dr Pepper and its barbecue.

Laura Lippman is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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