Black Day at Bad Rock by Catherine Fahringer (Jan/Feb 2001)

“Black day at bad rock” was the headline for The Hill Country Recorder on January 10, 2001.

In an excellent front-page write-up, Newton Renfro recounted the story of the theft of the 32-ton cenotaph from City Park in Comfort, Texas, on December 21, 2000. This memorial, to the German Freidenker founders of the settlement of Comfort in the mid-1800s, was financed almost entirely by present-day Freethinkers, and Freethinker and Atheist organizations, the major of these having been the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The limestone megalith memorial was installed on a concrete foundation in July of 1998, and its presence was soon felt. By September the conservative Christians of the Comfort community realized that Atheists! might have contributed to this project, which meant, of course, that Comfort might well become a “Mecca for Atheists.” Newspaper editorials spoke of the “tainted” funding of the rock which was sure to spread a “miasma of atheism” over the community.

During the two-year-plus controversy over this memorial, the rock stood in the park without its historical plaque and without dedication. There were rumors that it was to be removed, but no attempt was made to inform the donors. The rumors of threats came and went without any official notification of plans to remove the rock from Comfort. Those of us who wrote some of the movers(literally!)-and-shakers of Comfort never received replies to our queries.

When the rock was removed, without rumor or notification, the word of its disappearance spread to some of the donors via e-mail, but not until after the holidays. When we did learn that it was gone, we also knew the name of the crane company which had hauled it off, the name of the person who had made the arrangements with the crane company, and the actual location of the limestone cenotaph, thanks to our own Hill Country Nancy Drew, Julie Fisher, and our urban Nancy Drew, Terrellita Maverick.

It is difficult to recount the entire story of the rock’s theft with a straight face because it is so Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops from start to not-quite finish. For one thing, the person who made the arrangements for the rock’s removal was Gary Lindnor, the former head of the Comfort Chamber of Commerce. It seems he told the crane company that he was the mayor of Comfort. This is interesting largely because Comfort has no mayor; it is an unincorporated community.

Chatting up some folk in Comfort, Julie learned that the rock had been trucked out of town and was seen heading for Center Point. Additionally, she learned that some folk in town were actually speaking of the “theft” of the rock. So off she drove in the direction the 100-ton crane had taken. Sure enough, about two miles out of Comfort, and across the county line, she came upon the Home-of-the-Crane. No mistaking it. It was a Texas version of the Grand Canyon, but filled with much heavy-duty equipment. Julie found the one human being in the vicinity, and proceeded to question him. He obligingly gestured to her to follow his vehicle and he would lead her to the rock.

A short distance from Home-of-the-Crane was a very large, newly built white mansion in the middle of nowhere, which Julie described as more impressive than Tara. Julie’s guide motioned her to the rear of the house where there was a small pasture (or large backyard), fencing in two placid cows and a reclining thirty-two-ton limestone rock. Julie whipped out her camera and proceeded to photograph the rock in its new bucolic location.

Our dauntless Nancy Drew then went to the front door of the mansion and rang the bell. Two women appeared, and Julie asked them if they knew where the Comfort rock was. They seemed not to comprehend what she was saying, and to be puzzled by her question.

“Well,” said Julie, “it’s in your backyard/pasture, and I wanted you to know that . . . just in case the police come looking for stolen property.” Were they surprised that a rock the size of a schoolbus was in their backyard/pasture? If so, their demeanor did not betray it, nor did they show signs of fear or guilt.

But surprises were in store for the donors of the cenotaph when reporter Renfro’s article hit the newsstand. The picture accompanying the article was taken by a Bill Bourland, whose marriage to Jolene a year earlier had been solemnized in the shadow of the rock. They were sentimentally attached to it and, just happening by the park during the theft, did not hesitate a wink to race for a camera to record the kidnapping of their wedding site.

Meanwhile, our urban Nancy Drew, Terrellita Maverick, was quick to get on the phone, and her results were triumphant. She arranged for us to have an appointment on January 11 with the attorney who is the head of the San Antonio ACLU chapter. Besides that, she learned that a report on the megalith’s structure had been made to the rocknapper, and she obtained a copy of this two-page document. It had been sent to the Kendall County Courthouse (constructed of limestone), attention: Judge Bill Goodin.

The report begins, “Gentlepersons:”, and ends with the horrific warning that a small child could be injured while climbing on the rock, and that not a day goes by that something of this nature does not occur. (The last account I read of a rock catastrophe, aside from earthquakes and rockslides, was that of a man visiting a gravesite and leaning on the tombstone which instantly self-destructed, breaking the visitor’s foot.) The engineers’ report ended with the paragraph, “Thus we have no choice but to state that, in our opinion, this megalith is a danger to the public and should be removed immediately. Certainly before the next freeze.”

The report had gone into great length about the fissures of the rock filling with water and freezing, which would then cause the rock to break apart. Water in Texas is a rarity in the summer months. Freezing can occur in December. The report was issued on August 21. The rock was removed on Dec. 21. Hmmm. Actually, the closest the rock came to being a danger to anyone was when the crane was trying to wrench it from its 4-feet-deep foundation and the flatbed nearly flipped over as concrete and limestone reluctantly parted company.

The appointment with the SAACLU attorney took place as scheduled, and I wish I could describe that gentleman’s face as he raptly absorbed the story of the cenotaph as put into chronological order by our eloquent spokesperson, Howard Thompson.

When Howard had finished, Mr. Pina looked around the table at us–Ruth Lett, Sally Chizek, Terrellita Maverick, Julie Fisher, Howard and me–and said, “I can’t tell you how much I admire you people.” I went into euphoric shock. Fancy someone admiring atheists!!!

Four days later I am still walking a few feet off the ground, and feeling optimistic about what might come of our case . . . if we have one.

It’s a big dream, but I dare to dream that one of President Clinton’s and Joseph Lieberman’s favorite quotes, “In this country we have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion,” will be revealed to the whole country as the blatant perversion of the U.S. Constitution that it is. It is a thoughtless quote from Stephen L. Carter’s book, The Culture of Disbelief, and it is demeaning to the millions of us who dare to think, and know that, as Anne Gaylor has said, “There can be no religious freedom without the freedom to dissent.”

Catherine Fahringer is a Foundation officer from Texas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation