Friday, December 5, 2014

A Trip to Peckerwood Hill

   I went to visit Peckerwood Hill last week. I do almost every time I make the hour drive to Huntsville, most often for court appearances. A stout arm could throw a rock from the Walker County courthouse and hit the the iconic Walls Unit, home of the Texas death house. My destination, however, is a short drive from the Walls, up a hill past the Sam Houston State University's football stadium, my alma mater, and beyond the stop sign at the at the corner of Bowers and Sycamore. It is there the grave markers of the Captain Joe Byrd cemetery, also known by the far less distinguished name Peckerwood Hill, await.

   It is the potters field for indigent inmates who have died in prison. I first knew the place while living in an old pier and beam duplex near it almost 35 years ago. The frame duplex no longer exists, an apartment complex having replaced it. The area I lived was known then as Shephard's hill, but the gentle roll of the hill has been bent by dozer and dump truck to a the level grade of foundation and unwieldy student housing.

   Back in the day, I would ride my bike down Sycamore, turn at Bowers and glide down the hill to the university. I would occasionally stop at the cemetery. I was like that then. Curious. Sam Houston State, to it's credit, gave me access to things I had never experienced, even growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Houston.  I had to go to a small college in a conservative town in East Texas to find the pages of the Village Voice, to discover the Walls Unit and the death house. To learn about the Byrd Cemetery.

   I remember it struck me ironic that the irascible Father of Texas, Sam Houston, was buried in a stately cemetery down the street from the Walls unit and it's death house, while a few turns away are buried the too poor of his progeny's prison system. Unlikely neighbors in perpetuity. I have a hunch the Raven would have approved.

   Last week when I drove past the busy sidewalks, the football stadium, the baseball field and the apartments I wondered if I stopped and asked, how many would know the Byrd cemetery even existed.  I am betting very few. Really not their fault, but still I wonder.

   Allan Turner wrote in a Houston Chronicle story two years ago that the cemetery was near capacity. A visit would reveal the prediction prescient. As I stood at the bottom of the hill on that beautiful fall day, I wondered where the indigent dead would go next. I also thought about the major construction going on a hundred yards away from where I stood. The 22 acres comprising the cemetery have been used since the mid 19th century to bury the dead. The town, and then, later, the university were far away from what was then one of the seven hills around Huntsville. Not now.

   My wonder was if the money was right, if the system would disinter graves and move them because the dirt had become too valuable not too. I hope not. But it does not matter. I will visit anyway.

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