Hough’s 2021 debut memoir/essay collection, “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing,” won praise for its profane humor (NPR) and coruscating honesty (The Washington Post). She made literary news in March when the book was blocked from consideration for a Lambda Literary Award after Hough defended a novel that some considered transphobic.
Now, for “Getaway Driver,” she travels to Shamrock, Texas, to trace her ancestors’ brief but memorable encounter with the outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The outlaws, later portrayed by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the 1967 blockbuster “Bonnie and Clyde,” make an appearance in Hough’s essay; gangster John Dillinger has a cameo.
I wonder how many other stories I’ve lost.
But the piece doesn’t hand any of them a starring role. Instead it’s a meditation on place and family, and most specifically on Hough’s grandfather. “Grandpa Chuck” had Alzheimer’s. He lost his connection to the present and died as Hough was finishing her essay. But through remembered stories and her tour of a history museum in the Texas Panhandle, Hough renders him in such granular detail that readers feels as if they’re sitting on the porch with him, tipping back beers and watching the dogs roughhouse.
In an interview with Storyboard, Hough explained how she came to write for Texas Highways, the state’s official and often surprising travel magazine, and about her approach to reporting and writing. She describes techniques that may help other writers, such as her thoughts on flexibility (“I didn’t want to insert myself too much in the story. But I liked how when I was writing it down, it started sounding like a procedural.”) and voice (“I tend to write like I’m telling the story to a friend.”). The Q&A is followed by an annotation of “Getaway Driver.” Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What was the genesis and process of writing a memoir for a travel magazine?
Mike Hoinski, an editor at Texas Highways, asked if I’d like to submit something. I kept ignoring his emails because while I really wanted to be in Texas Highways, I didn’t think I had a story. But I kept thinking about it. Texas Highways is the magazine my grandparents always had on their coffee tables. It’s the magazine I’d flip through at my aunts’ houses. The only problem was I still didn’t have any ideas for a piece except this story my grandpa told me about Bonnie and Clyde. I told Mike I didn’t have the first clue how to write it or whether or not it was true. Mike came back to me with, “So that’s the story. Go to Shamrock and see if you can find anything.”
Once I got to Shamrock, I didn’t know what to look for or where to begin. But Shamrock’s a small town. I started at the museum, and quickly discovered that if I mentioned Texas Highways, everyone was more than happy to talk to me.
I wrote everything down but kept making it too complicated. I started with the history of Bonnie and Clyde, then started again with the history of Shamrock, and then with my grandfather’s story. Nothing worked. I finally went back to what Mike said, about the search itself being the story. So I started at the museum.
What kind of reaction have you received? I didn’t expect a reaction at all. It was just a simple story about my grandpa. But it seems to have hit a nerve. I think we’re all missing someone and wishing we’d had more time to hear their stories and mourning not just the person but the stories we’ve lost. I’ve been getting a lot of email from people who’ve recently lost parents and grandparents, people who want someone to hear the story they never wrote down. And I got an email from Hazel’s niece telling me I should’ve gone in for the hug. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Do read to the end of Hough’s essay to understand that intriguing reference. You won’t regret it.)
What are you reading right now for inspiration? I’ve been reading “In the Weeds,” Tom Vitale’s memoir about working and traveling with Anthony Bourdain. After my own book was published last year, I hadn’t been able to get into any nonfiction for awhile. Or maybe it’s the pandemic. Who know? I’m hoping it’s a good sign. Bourdain was a huge influence on me as a writer, this guy who wrote in his natural voice and didn’t sound like anyone else. So I feel like I’m dancing around the idea of writing something else.
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Hough’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the “Hide all annotation” button on your screen.
A grandpa’s tall tale sends a Panhandle native back to the scene of the crime
by Lauren Hough
From the March 2022 issueI’m in a doll museum in Shamrock, and I am not prepared to face down the hundreds of ceramic figures staring at me from every shelf and corner. I can’t believe the curator just let me in here, told me a little history of the place, then wished me luck in my research—leaving me alone to deal with the ghosts. She’s out on the porch talking to a couple old-timers, probably about the fall weather or football or whatever you talk about on porches. But I’m convinced they’re talking about that writer from Austin who was, as my grandpa used to say, raised on concrete. They’ve given no indication they think this of me. But the second I stepped out of my car, the wind grabbed my Red Sox hat off my head, as it does, as anyone from the Panhandle knows it will. I imagine they enjoyed the slapstick spectacle of a city kid who doesn’t have the sense to hold onto her hat and now must chase it down the sidewalk. This is a fascinating story throughout, and you could have set its first paragraph in any number of times and places. Why did you start in the doll museum? There’s only ever one way to start a story. But I usually have to try all the wrong ways first. Then sometimes I’ll find the paragraph that leads to a second. In this case I think the museum worked as a way to introduce the question I’d come to Shamrock to answer. Opening with a question — What the hell I was doing in a doll museum, showing I didn’t belong there? — led to the answer.
This is already one of my favorite museums, and I’ve been to my share—in London and Berlin and Osaka and Rome and Cairo, and to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum down the road in Canyon. It’s always irked me when other tourists show up on the day I visit to block my view and laugh inappropriately and talk too loudly. It’s not that I think I’m special and should be allowed to wander freely, unperturbed by tourists. No. It’s exactly that. I enjoy history. I’m here to learn. They’re here to take a few selfies for Instagram. I should have the place to myself.
So, when Raquel Riggs, the curator of the Pioneer West Museum, gave me a quick briefing on the place and left me to explore, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was finally touring a museum the way I’d always intended—alone. The museum is housed in the Reynolds Hotel, a stately brick Mission Revival structure built in the 1920s, during the oil and railroad boom, and named after local attorney Marion Reynolds. Each of the 25 rooms in the museum focuses on a different subject or era—fossils and arrows; barbed wire and the railroad; the pride of Wheeler, astronaut Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon—with every conceivable surface chock-full of artifacts. There’s a fort, a chapel, a barbershop, a general store, a dental office. Hard to believe they’ve fit this much into one little hotel on what used to be a main street.
According to Raquel, everything in the museum was donated by locals. From what I can tell when I get up to the second floor, someone in town had a habit of collecting dolls that bordered on the maniacal. I’m so discombobulated by the dolls—yellow hair in ringlets and complicated braids, hoop skirts, velvet coats, tiny white aprons, delicately painted bow lips and blush, and eyes that follow you—I’ve forgotten why I’m here. I hope they host a haunted house in October. There’s a lot of detail in this description of the museum. By the time it’s over I feel as if I’ve gotten a personal tour. How important was it to establish a sense of place — not just at the museum, but elsewhere — as you guide readers through the story? The Texas Panhandle’s such a strange and interesting place. I left just after high school, and in 25 years I’ve never quite found words to describe it. The museum was an easy way to introduce some of the history. Because this story dates back to the Dust Bowl and how the Dust Bowl shaped my grandparents’ lives, it was crucial to really ground it in place, to detail this tiny town and the history and landscape, or it would’ve remained what it was, just some story my grandpa told me.
Downstairs, in a hallway, are the framed newspaper clippings to remind me why I’m here—Bonnie and Clyde and Grandpa Chuck. My grandpa, thankfully, isn’t mentioned in the clippings. He wouldn’t be. From what I can tell, if his story’s true, he was just a little kid. How much did you consider when you would introduce Bonnie and Clyde into the story? I didn’t want the story to be about Bonnie and Clyde. Leading with them would’ve made them the main characters and I think a reader would’ve expected more about them. Dropping them in as an aside kept the story focused on my grandpa and the town itself.
MY GRANDPA HAS ALWAYS dressed like a farmer. He favors overalls or Wranglers strung up by suspenders, pearl-snap shirts, boots, and a short-brim Stetson. When he went to church or dinner, he’d wear what he called his “uptown” suspenders, slimmer and printed with paisley or little flowers. When I was little, he smelled like pipe tobacco, and he’d blow smoke rings for me to slap apart before they floated to the ceiling. That smell has always reminded me of him. There were years I didn’t know him at all—divorce and remarriage, different states and countries. I didn’t know, for example, he was from Texas, not Denver, where he lived in a split-level and ran his own barbershop. I didn’t know, until recently, that he’s always wanted to rob a bank. You do something striking here when you use the words “didn’t know” in three sentences in a row. Was that deliberate repetition? I learned to write from songwriters. I focus a lot more on the cadence of a sentence and paragraph than I do on the verbiage or anything else. When I read something, that cadence, or the lack thereof, is the difference between continuing or setting it down. Sometimes repetition is useful to build a rhythm and move a story forward. Because this story was about all the things I didn’t know, I liked repeating it. And three times is always better than two. I don’t know why that is. I just know that when I read it, I like the sound.
When my grandpa needed some extra help, he moved in with my dad here in Austin. When I moved to Austin, five years ago, I’d watch him in the afternoons so my dad could run errands. He didn’t always know who I was. Alzheimer’s is a hell of a disease. But I noticed if I got him talking about the old days, his mind was sharp and full of stories. I’d pour him a Lone Star and every time, like a ritual, he’d ask me if I was interested in robbing a bank. I told him I could be the getaway driver. He said, no—he’s driving. My grandpa’s legally blind. I picture us making a getaway at 12 miles per hour. He told me we needed one more guy. “Let’s go tomorrow,” he said.
At first, I thought he was kidding about the whole bank-robbing thing. But I asked, once, if he was serious. We were sitting on the porch, watching the dogs wrestle, drinking the beer I’d snuck in for him. My dad doesn’t like him to have too many—bad for his cholesterol. I think being in his 90s is probably bad for his cholesterol. So, I sneak him a beer on occasion. He’s earned it. That afternoon, I asked him if he was kidding about robbing a bank. He wiped the condensation off his glass then used it to flatten his wispy hair. He said, “Oh, no. I’m serious as judge. And they’ve got it coming. They took my horse.” This is a vivid bit of dialogue, something you drop in throughout the piece. Did you take notes, record or reconstruct from memory? I have a recording. I’ve always liked how old Texans talk, with those aphorisms that would sound silly with the wrong accent. My grandpa used them like seasoning. Made you want to listen longer. Made me want him to repeat himself. I could ask him the same question from a different angle and he’d have a new interesting way to say it each time. His “serious as a judge” when he was talking about robbing a bank made me laugh, so of course I had to use it.
I asked, “The bank?”
He said that was back in Texola. He mixes up town names occasionally. Sometimes he tells me Shamrock is where he had the horse. I do know, in the mid-1930s, the bank took the ranch in Shamrock and his family moved to Texola, just across the Oklahoma border, on what’s now Interstate 40.
I’d been asking him about the Dust Bowl, an obsession of mine. I like writing Dust Bowl stories, and he lived through it. That my grandparents survived it and told these stories when I was a kid may be the root of my obsession. We had to listen to the stories until someone told us to go play outside, but don’t get dirty. I was always only half listening back then. Now, stories need detail, and my grandpa has all the details—how to catch a bunny for dinner by jabbing a strand of unraveled barbed wire in the hole, how his job was to herd the chickens into the house to ride out a duster, how his mom papered the walls with newspaper in a desperate attempt to keep the dust out.
He’d often wind up talking about his horse named Eagle he rode to school. When school got out, Eagle would be waiting for him. Didn’t even have to tie him up. But until that afternoon in 2018, he’d never mentioned the bank. He said they took the farm, and maybe they had a right. But they had no right to take his horse.
I thought that was it for a moment. Stories end like that sometimes, drift into nothing, and he’ll ask about supper. But my grandpa grabbed a tissue from his chest pocket, and I saw he was crying. He said there wasn’t anything they could do. The bank took the farm, and then they took his horse. They had no right. “Never trust a bank,” he said.
I wanted to change the subject. I’d never seen my grandpa cry. I asked about Shamrock, and he said, “Bonnie and Clyde.” Like he’d been trying to remember the name of an actor. But we hadn’t been talking about movies.
“What?” I asked.
“Bonnie and Clyde. They were hiding in the barn.”
“Bonnie and Clyde?”
He laughed and I knew he was well aware of the bomb he’d dropped. I asked, “Oh, they were bank robbers, right?” I was trying to remember what I knew about Bonnie and Clyde and came up with, I think Warren Beatty was in the movie.
He said, “They robbed banks, all right. Were pretty good at it, too.”
I thought, well, at least we’re not talking about the horse now. Maybe this was a story he’d heard. Then he added, “They gave me a box of chocolate bars.”
I nearly spit my beer. He laughed and took another sip of his and said it again. “Bonnie and Clyde.” I waited. He was enjoying this.
“They were hiding in the barn,” he said. He was looking off into the middle distance like he could see the barn now.
“Bonnie and Clyde?”
“Yep, I brought them their supper,” he said. “I was only 7 at the time.”
I waited for him to continue, but when he didn’t, I asked, “And they gave you a candy bar?”
That perked him up. “No, a whole box of candy bars. Chocolate bars. Hershey’s. A whole box,” he repeated. “Like this.” And he held out his hands and formed a shoebox. He added, “My older brother—and this was really his deal—he showed them a way out of town, to avoid the sheriff.”
And that was it. I asked him again and recorded part of it on my phone. I don’t know why. I think now I just wanted proof.
When my dad got home and I told him the story, he said, “No, that was Dillinger.” Like this was a story he’d heard a million times as a boy and hadn’t thought about since. He was sure it was Dillinger. I told him, “Dillinger was Chicago, Dad.” He shrugged and said maybe he mixed it up. This was driving me nuts. I like how you let the readers in on your own reactions — nearly spitting out your beer, something driving you nuts, etc. Did you deliberate much on whether you included too much? Or not enough? I didn’t want to insert myself too much in the story. But I liked how when I was writing it down, it started sounding like a procedural so I left most of it in. Enough to show how weird this story was, that it wasn’t something he told us all the time. He just dropped it one afternoon. I Googled “Bonnie and Clyde Shamrock” on my phone. All I could find was some info about a chase that ended with their car in the Red River and some locals helping them. The write-up said someone was shot.
My dad said that didn’t sound right, that my grandpa would’ve mentioned the river or someone getting shot. He said he was pretty sure it was Dillinger anyway. I didn’t show him the Wiki page for Dillinger.
MY GRANDPA’S OLDER NOW than he was then—that’s how aging works. He still enjoys a beer, but he doesn’t know who I am. He no longer tells stories. All I’ve got is what he told me on those summer afternoons. Maybe that’s why I got it into my head to drive up to Shamrock and find out if his story was real.
The drive from the Hill Country to the Panhandle might be one of those drives one can enjoy only if they’re from the Panhandle. And I am—Amarillo. Which is to say, when the road flattens and widens, when the mesquite-dotted hills are replaced by flat brown fields of prairie grass, when the dirt turns red and the sky never ends and I swear I can see all the way to Colorado, I’m someone who’ll pull over at the first Allsup’s and fill a vat with Dr Pepper and order two burritos—yes, please, to the offer of hot sauce. It’s a strange thing, driving up this edge of Texas—the High Plains and the Llano Estacado to the left, the canyons and the hills to the right, through one-street towns of close-built shops, many boarded up nowadays. I can still picture horses tied to the rails out front.
Outside the museum, Raquel asks me what I’m writing about. I tell her my grandpa’s story, the main points anyway. She asks his name and says she doesn’t know any Houghs around here. The old-timers chime in—don’t know any Houghs. I say my grandpa’s people weren’t here long. They moved to Texola when the bank took the ranch. The old-timers say that’s how it often happened. I think my grandpa’s probably not the only one with a grudge against banks. Raquel asks if I’ve been to the U-Drop Inn.
If you Google “Shamrock, Texas,” the Conoco Tower of the U-Drop Inn is the image you’ll see, and for good reason. It’s a beautifully preserved art deco building. If you wait in front of the tower longer than a minute, you’ll see tourists get out of their cars and stand long enough to make sure their legs still work after hours in the car—that sprint from Oklahoma City or Albuquerque, maybe Amarillo if they allowed themselves the rest. They take a couple pictures, check their screens, take a couple more. The tower’s turquoise neon looks amazing on Instagram. One facet I enjoyed about this essay is how you often invite the reader directly into it … moving into second person, referencing social media posts they could dig up. I feel like sometimes the reader’s experience can, weirdly, get lost in the shuffle as the writer struggles with word choice, getting facts nailed down, etc. Is the reader’s relationship with the story that something on your mind as you write? I tend to write like I’m telling a story to a friend. Or I try to. Only way it works for me. Sometimes it’s more obvious when I address them directly and give them homework. But I enjoy addressing the reader. It makes the story more accessible. This part of Shamrock, the road that used to be Route 66, still looks like 1955. The drive-up motels and auto repair shops. The hand-painted signs scrubbed dull by the wind. The ancient Chevies and Fords still glistening, polished by those who treasure these artifacts of the time before I-40 bypassed the town. The tourists take their photos then drive away.
The smart ones go inside before they hit the road again. Inside the U-Drop Inn, you’ll find an info center in the large lobby of the old gas station—the shelves now lined with pamphlets, books, and local art. Through a door to the right, a small café. At the U-Drop, you get to meet Hazel and Oleta.
Oleta Stone looks so familiar you’re sure she’s a distant aunt you met at a family barbecue a few years ago. You just can’t quite place if she’s on your dad’s side or your mom’s. Probably my favorite description in the essay. Do you recall how you came to write it? I really just felt like I knew her. I don’t remember how I came up with that description. But I was already thinking of older relatives I miss, sitting around listening to their stories, so it was a natural leap. I like using something a reader will relate to rather than a detailed description of a person. I can tell you what color her eyes were and what she was wearing or I can remind you of someone you know and let you fill in the details and now she’s more real. . She’s warm like that. Like she knows you might be a little uncomfortable meeting all these new people, and she’ll fix you a plate and introduce you to some cousins who’ll play with you.
When I arrive at the U-Drop, Oleta’s showing a couple tourists a mural on the back wall of the Pixar movie Cars. She’s telling them how the scenery and buildings were all real places on Route 66. I wander around looking at hats, T-shirts, a mannequin of a sheriff with handcuffs on his hip. The tourists leave, and Oleta asks if I need any help. I tell her I’m working on a story about my grandpa and ask about Bonnie and Clyde. She says I ought to check out the museum. She assures me Raquel will welcome me. I say I’ve been, and she says if I want to know more, I really should talk to Hazel.
Hazel Janssen’s at the register and rings me up for a couple Route 66 bumper stickers. Oleta tells Hazel I’m a writer, and I swear I can hear the pride in her voice. Hazel’s proud of me, too. I want to stay awhile and soak up all this warmth. Maybe I miss my grandmothers. Hazel asks why I’m interested in Bonnie and Clyde, and I say I’m not really. I tell her about my grandpa. I tell her about my grandparents and how they survived the Dust Bowl and used to tell me stories. That the Dust Bowl—this disaster no one talks about—is an obsession of mine. For nearly 10 years, most of the 1930s, the entire middle of the country looked like the Sahara Desert. And anytime I mention it, all I get is a blank stare. Hazel says she was born in ’35, the middle of the worst of it. Her mom used to cover her crib with a wet sheet so she wouldn’t choke on the dust. I say this is what I mean. These details. We hear about those who left. We never hear from those who stayed. And people did stay. She locks eyes with me and says, “Some people couldn’t afford to leave.” I like the weaving-in of the Dust Bowl, not only as a historic event you’re interested in, but as a presence over this story. By the end, most readers will likely be as fascinated by it as you are. I talk about the Dust Bowl like a cokehead at a party telling you about a band you have to listen to, no, really listen to. I don’t like writing a story unless there’s a point to it. Otherwise, it’s just telling stories. In this case, bringing the Dust Bowl into it, if I can get one person interested in what was an entirely manmade ecological disaster that may well happen again, then there’s a point to writing about my grandpa’s brush with Bonnie and Clyde.
Hazel says she knew the lady Clyde shot. Her name was Gladys Cartwright. The Cartwrights and another family, the Pritchards, had seen the Barrow gang’s car go into the Red River. The Pritchard and Cartwright men rescued the passengers from the sinking car—two men and a woman. Clyde and his brother, Buck, were all right. Bonnie suffered burns to her leg. They all wound up at the Pritchard farmhouse, where the gang held the families hostage while they treated Bonnie’s wounds. Gladys, only 19 at the time and holding an infant in her arms, had reached for something above a cabinet, and seeing a threat, Clyde shot her hand. A newspaper clipping from the time says Buck shot her. In any case, her hand took a load.
Hazel says Gladys used to play piano, was pretty good at it, too. The gang’s car is still there, under the river, swallowed by the quicksand. But Gladys never played piano again.
I tell her I’m pretty sure that wasn’t my family. All my grandpa said was they were hiding in the barn. Hazel says it’s likely. The Barrow gang was all over town for a time. They even ate in the café next door.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever know if it’s true,” I say of my grandpa’s tale. “Why wouldn’t it be true?” Hazel responds. “It’s his story.” I agree and say maybe I just wanted to honor a little part of his past. He’s my last grandparent. I wonder now how many other stories I’ve lost.
”Why wouldn’t it be true?” Hazel responds. “It’s his story.”
I resist the urge to hug them when I leave.
Next door, at the café, I order a cheesecake and a bottle of Coke. I’ll regret the sugar crash later, but I can’t resist a bottled Coke. The place is so well preserved—a low café bar lined with short chrome stools, an ornate tin ceiling, soft pleather booths under the windows—you’d think they wrapped it in plastic 70 years ago and just unwrapped it last night. The story goes, Clyde asked the waitress here about a slot machine. She told him it was just emptied, in case he was thinking of robbing it. They bought lunch and paid. I wonder which booth they sat in. I wonder how my grandpa’s family escaped unscathed so the only story he’s got is about a box of candy bars, while a few miles down the road, a woman who played piano never got to play again.
I’d never been off the highway in Shamrock. But I have a video of my grandpa telling me a story about Bonnie and Clyde. I thought this essay would be a fun way to check out the town and find out more. Turns out, I found a way to honor my grandpa. Charles Hough was born in 1927. He died in Austin on Jan. 14, while I was finishing this story. And I believe every word of it. What made this assertion the right ending … and was it always the ending, or did you ever have something else in its place? Originally it ended with “a woman who played piano never got to play again.” I filed it that way. We went through copy edits and fact checking that way. I thought it was a solid, bittersweet ending that showed the hardness of life back then and how much was just dumb luck. Then my grandfather died right before it went to print. My editor, Mike Hoinski asked if I’d like to add a paragraph. Of course I did.