Most of the boys in Wharton were given a quarter every week so they could go to the movies for 15 cents, buy popcorn and a soda for 5 cents each. John, who was 13 years old at the time, had a friend named Edwin Jopling.
Both figured out how to get their friends to give them their money instead of spending it at the movies.
The boys enjoyed spending a lot of time on the banks of the Colorado River, not too far from the bridge for the highway. Those little rascals figured out a way to catapult into the river to take a swim. They were having so much fun that they just knew the other boys would love it, too, so they would go down to the movie theater on Saturdays and entice the other boys to go with them to the river. Once there, they showed them how the catapult worked and the business had begun. A quarter bought three rides on the catapult into the river.
Many of the boys didn’t know how to swim, but McCain’s father, Joseph Pressley McCain, had taught him how and he had also had lifeguard training at a Boy Scout camp in Edna. So John was prepared for any emergency. John and Edwin had an inner tube ready where the fliers would land just in case of a problem.
McCain said back in those days, swim suits were not even something the youngsters would have considered.
“The boys were all buck naked as they went flying through the air,” he said. This almost caused some problems for McCain and Jopling.
River business rumors
It wasn’t long before the theater owner realized his income was down. He asked some of the mothers why their children had stopped coming to the movies because he was selling about 25 fewer tickets each week than he had usually sold. That was about the time that townspeople started telling stories about a bunch of naked boys running around down by the river. The mothers took the problem into their own hands and went down to the riverside. When they got there and saw their boys scampering around without a stitch of clothing on, they were upset and demanded that the business be shut down immediately.
City Marshall Walter W. Pittman showed up and told the boys what the mothers were demanding. John and Edwin had just collected all the quarters and did not want to give refunds, so they asked if they could let the boys finish out their money’s worth of rides. The ones that were left – the ones the mothers had not taken home – took their final catapult ride and so ended a very enterprising endeavor for two adolescents. Their business had been in operation for three weeks by the time the mothers “jumped” into action.
A few days after they had shut down the catapult in Wharton, the County Sheriff, Elo Koehl, questioned John about a strange visit he had with some out of towners. Koehl said that some people had stopped by his office and were in hysterics because they had seen a naked boy flying through the air near the river bridge.
The sheriff was incredulous because he knew nothing of that sort of activity, and he sent the travelers on their way with a strong reprimand that those kinds of things just didn’t happen around here. He thought they were drinking or up to other no good business. And then he got wind of the catapult project.
He called John in and started questioning him about what had been going on at the river. The sheriff told John that he didn’t mind the boys having fun but he sure would have liked to have known about it before the visitors had stopped by. Now he felt like he owed them an apology for doubting what they had to say.
He let the boys off the hook, although the business had already shut down. However, the laughter and memories have lasted a lifetime and discussion of it at the Hesed House is proof of it.
A real firecracker
McCain learned to live dangerously early in life, thanks to his dad. The son, who is now 102 years young, said he was born during the 1918 Flu Pandemic, so his mother, Sally Pearl Treat McCain, wouldn’t let him out of the house for the first year of his life. Once the youth was out of diapers, he became his father’s work companion.
“Every morning my daddy put a pillow on the saddle in front of him and I would go out with him,” he said. His father, Joe McCain, also known as “Mr. Mac,” was a powerful influence in Wharton back in those days, he said.
There was a judge in town, Judge J.N.N. Dennis, by name (not a bonafide judge, but more likely a justice of the peace), who was friends with his father. This man told his dad that the biggest need in Wharton in 1916 was a wood lot (for selling fire wood), so they looked for a remedy for the problem. The judge had 576 acres outside of town on Rancho Grande Road that he wanted cleared, so the elder McCain took 12 of his workers who came from Mexico to help clear the property.
The first thing they did was have a well digger come to dig a water well, then they built a little bunk house with a big kitchen for the men to stay in. His dad thought they would sell the land for farmland after it was cleared, so the process began. That’s when young John learned to set off dynamite.
After cutting the tops from the trees, the workers would have to dynamite the roots. They used an auger to put a hole under the stump, then they put some dynamite in the hole and set the fuse that was a couple of feet long after they got everyone out of the way.
“When I got a little bigger, I pulled the wagon around with the water can in it,” said McCain. “There was a little out house out where we stored the dynamite. It was a little wooden building, no sheet iron on it, so if lightning struck, it wouldn’t have been blown up.”
The Mexican workers would shoot the dynamite, but his dad kept the cap (for shooting the dynamite) under his belt. John learned to crimp the ends and stick the dynamite down in the hole, even before he started school.
He said, “The fuse stuck out a couple of feet and that gave you plenty of time to get away.
“When we would light the fuse, we hollered, ‘Fire in the hole!’”
McCain said he was about four years old when he started doing this.
He kept on until he had to go to first grade and he went out with his dad every day unless he had to do something in town.
It took from 1916 until 1928 for them to get the wood out of there. “…but when the gas line came in in 1928, that put us out of business” McCain said. “Down through the years, everybody knew I had shot dynamite.”
That led to a potentially deadly business for him and his friend Edward Jopling.
City Marshal Walter Pittman knew that young John had set off dynamite, so he came by the McCain house to get him and Jopling and explained what he wanted them to do. Every year, as least one or two kids drowned and got carried downstream by the Colorado River. Pittman wanted those boys to help search for the lost bodies.
McCain described their job like this: “We would go in where the boys went in before they let go and drowned. We swim down a ways and check all the snags … if we didn’t get anything, we would get out. We had an igniter that all we had to do was turn it, so we’d go out there and tie the dynamite on to the stump in the water. It would really jar the water and anything down there would come loose. Then we’d go another couple of hundred yards and do that again, till we finally decided it was too late … the alligators got him!”
Because people knew that young McCain was skilled in setting off dynamite, another job offer came his way, but this is one he turned down. There had been many accidents at the Kendleton Bridge over the years, and a committee of citizens decided to take matters into their own hands. The bridge was on the county line between Wharton and Fort Bend and the road had many dangerous turns, but neither county wanted to disperse the funds needed to take care of the problem. This group came to McCain and made its request, members asking him to be the one to do the job. He flat out refused them.
“I said, ‘If it’s dynamited, I know I am going to be blamed,’” McCain said.
(Wharton County Sheriff Buckshot Lane did eventually take care of it himself).
He did confess to his crime, but only after the 25-year statute of limitations had run out. So, the problem was eventually solved.