Nothing is as scary to a kid than a cemetery or a funeral home, with the possible exception of their mother coming in the backdoor with a switch freshly cut and ready to whip their ass for burning up the pasture behind the house. I know all about that scenario.
Crockett had a total of four funeral homes while I was growing up. Callaway Funeral Home and Waller Funeral Home served the white community while Woodley-Wheeler Funeral Home and McCullough Funeral Home served the black community. The racial makeup of Crockett was roughly fifty-fifty, with possibly a few more among the black population. Three of the four were well respected and I never heard anything negative about them. The McCullough Funeral Home was a different story.
The McCullough Funeral Home was owned and operated by M.B. "Marcello" McCullough. It was located in a large house near the railroad tracks and was a spooky looking place. McCullough lived on the premises and he fit right in with the mystique of property. He was a large man and was always dressed in black attire as one who had seen enough horror movies would come to expect. He could be seen walking around the property at all hours with a solemn look on his face. He and his funeral home were the personification of what spawns local legends and scary stories. There were so many stories told and accusations made about him there was no way to know what was true and what wasn't. The ones I'm about to relate fall into the category of the unknown.
All the years I lived in Crockett there was no such thing as a private ambulance service. Each funeral home had at least one hearse fitted with first aid equipment, a siren and red lights. It was still a segregated community in a lot of ways, and the ambulance service was a prime example. When the police or sheriff's department were called to an accident, the race of the victims dictated which funeral home got the call. White victims were picked up by Callaway or Waller, and black victims were serviced by Woodley-Wheeler or McCullough. An integrated wreck meant at least two ambulances were summoned.
It was rumored that McCullough was removed from the call list. When victims of an accident were transported to the hospital and arrived alive, the funeral home had to collect their fee for services rendered and it was entirely their responsibility. If the victims were dead on arrival the funeral home would receive a payment from the county, so they wouldn't be left completely out in the cold if there was nobody for them to bill. If more than one funeral home responded and there were multiple casualties, they would cover as many bodies as possible with their sheets to "claim them." Apparently McCullough didn't like to go through the bother of collecting from the victims. All of a sudden a disturbing pattern began to develop. An accident victim might have only minor injuries when McCullough picked them up, but they were dead by the time they reached the hospital. Nothing was ever proven, but the survival rate went way up when McCullough was removed from the rotation. I have no idea if that was true, but I heard it again and again when I was a kid.
The casket stories made the rounds as well. It was said McCullough once provided a casket for a young man in his twenties. He was nearly seven feet tall, so an extra long casket was ordered and the parents were charged a considerable sum for it. Once the body was placed in the casket they wanted to spend some time alone with their son. The casket didn't appear to be any longer than a standard model, so they called McCullough in and questioned him. He assured them it was indeed the longer model their son required. Finally they demanded he open the casket because something was amiss. He refused and the sheriff was summoned. Finally McCullough relented and opened the casket. The legs of the young man had been sawed off and put in the casket beside him. The casket was indeed the standard length.
It was widely suspected that McCullough only had one casket in his possession. He would show it to the grieving family and make them a deal they couldn't pass up. After the graveside service was over and the family departed, he would dump the body into the grave, fill in the hole, and return the casket to the funeral home to be used again and again.
I worked on Mustang Prairie Ranch from the time I was in junior high off and on until I was a senior. I worked with a lot of black mechanics, cowboys and equipment operators. All of them knew McCullough and were the source of most of the tales. Over the years I got to know them well and realized they weren't joking around when the subject of McCullough came up. To the man they considered him a sinister figure and a person to be avoided. They would never make eye contact with him if they accidentally came near him when in town. They all expressed the belief that death was imminent if McCullough looked them directly in the eye for any length of time.
My only real connection with McCullough came through my life long friend, Bruce Bennett. His family owned a grocery store as well as the John Deere dealership. Bruce worked at both places while growing up, and as a result crossed paths with McCullough on a regular basis. All the tales I had heard from my co-workers at Mustang Prairie had been told to Bruce by customers at the the grocery store and the tractor dealership.
Bruce told me of a funny and disturbing incident that happened in front of their grocery store. McCullough was in the store picking up a few things and rambling on about a variety of subjects. As always most of the customers stayed as far away from him as possible. A bread truck was parked in front of the building having just made a delivery.
A local handyman was approaching rapidly on his bicycle. He was full of the spirit, the bottled kind, and was gaining speed by the second. He wasn't the safest person around when he was sober, and that wasn't very often. Everyone in the area kept an eye out for him at all times. As he rounded the corner he lost control and slammed into the back of the bread truck, knocking him out cold. Everyone inside the store heard the crash and came outside to investigate. Crockett is a small town and he was known to all, as was McCullough. The drunk was on the ground unconscious between the truck and the rear of McCullough's stationwagon. As the stunned group looked on, McCullough leaned over the man for a couple of seconds. He opened the back of the stationwagon, grabbed the man under his arms and began loading him up. Finally someone asked if an ambulance should be called. McCullough just shrugged and said, "No, he is just about gone. I'm going to take him on down to the funeral home."
He had the man about halfway into the vehicle when he came to. The first thing he saw was the face of McCullough looking him in the eye. Of course he knew who McCullough was and the threat of a direct stare. He screamed and crawled out of the stationwagon as fast as he could. He ran down the street yelling and disappeared into the trees. McCullough never said another word. He shut the door, got into the car and drove away. The incident added even more fuel to the fire of the McCullough legend.
Each Sunday morning the local radio station would air programs in fifteen minute incriments. Most programs featured a message from the preacher of the local churches. McCullough purchased a time slot and delivered his own message. Most listeners would be hard pressed to tell you what in the hell the message was at the end of the broadcast, but I can attest to the fact that it was always entertaining.
My lifelong friend, college roommate and fellow smartass, Ed Driskill, was the disc jockey on duty during most of those Sunday morning broadcasts. He got to know everyone with a show, although the majority we taped in advance. McCullough always came to the station and did his live. Needless to say, McCullough was his favorite by far. Ed, Bruce Bennett and I ran around together a lot, and Ed always had a McCullough story. It was at his urging that Bruce and I began to tune in on Sunday mornings to hear what McCullough would come up with next.
McCullough had a charge account at Bennett's Grocery. Since McCullough didn't have any sponsors, he devised a plan to help with the expenses. He made it a point each week to heap loads of praise upon those fine folks at Bennett's Grocery. He would get on a roll and make up sales that were in progress; sales nobody at the grocery store knew anything about. He would also rave about Bennett Equipment, located across the street from the grocery store. I heard him say on many occasions that "Mr. Leon Bennett will trade for horses, cows, chickens and all kinds of things." Mr. Leon wasn't thrilled about the publicity he was receiving, nor was Bruces' grandfather, Mr. John Hazlett, who ran the grocery store. On Monday McCullough would go to the grocery store and ask that a little bit be taken off of his bill as payment for the advertising he had done on his show. They finally struck a deal. McCullough would receive a discount if he DIDN'T advertise for them the day before.
McCullough didn't have any particular theme for his show. He would ramble from one subject to the next and you to pay close attention to recognize the changes. He never failed to thank "Mr. Eddie Driskill, the fine disc jockey at this here station." On many occasions he said Eddie was a most pro-efficient disc jockey.
Ed actually put that on his resume in later years, and had to explain it during job interviews.
McCullough liked to end each broadcast by reading a short passage taken from the FFA creed. Under normal circumstances it took him about a minute to accomplish it and end the show. Like the pro-efficient disc jockey he was, Ed would cue McCullough when he had a minute left. Of course, being the smartass he was (is), occasionally he would tell him he only had forty-five seconds left. McCullough wasn't easy to understand anyway, and when he was in a hurry it was mostly babble. He would launch into his final statement and you couldn't understand a single word, until the very end. His last words were always spoken slow and clear. ..."and above all, play the game fair."
One Saturday evening as we were gathered in the dining room at the Dairy Queen, Eddie told Bruce and I to be sure and catch the McCullough show the next morning. He asked me if I still had my cassette tape recorder and I said I did. He told me to be sure and tape the show.
The next morning McCullough began the show with a long list of people he was dedicating the show to. Mostly they were people to whom he owed money. I think he named every adult in the Bennett family. At the very end he named, "Mr. Bruce Bennett and Mr. Jimmy Beasley...two of my biggest fans." He knew Bruce well, but he didn't know me at all. I was included at Ed's urgung and he garbled my name a little, but I didn't care. It was a proud moment in my young life. He named Bruce and I again a few weeks later. He dedicated serveral shows to Ed over the years.
A couple of years later I was in college and hadn't thought of McCullough for a long while. Somehow we got on the subject and began to recall all the stories we had heard. About 2am Eugene May said, "I've got an idea. Let's call McCullough!"
Thankfully those were the days before caller ID or Eugene might still be in prison. I would be out since I was only the accomplice and would have hopefully received a lighter sentence. Eugene had been sitting around thinking of a good story for McCullough. Eugene delivered groceries to some houses in the same area of town as the funeral home was located, and one of his customers left their porch light on twenty-four hours a day. He fixed up the tape recorder to catch the entire conversation, then placed the call. McCullough answered on the second ring.
"Is Mr. McCullough what owns the funeral home?"
"Yes, it is. Why are you calling me?"
"This is Jesse Ward, and I live at....... I need you help bad!"
"What do you want?" asked McCullough. He was getting irritated, but curious as well.
"Mr. McCullough, you've got to help me. I was down to the Jolly Joy Saturday night and gots to drinkin' with this dude. He was from out of town, and he offered to drive me home 'cause I was too drunk to drive.
I told him he could spend the night on my couch. I got up early Sunday morning and went to Houston to work on a job down there. I just got back a little while ago and that dude be dead on my couch!"
"What do you want me to do about it?"
"Mr. McCullough, can you come get this body? I don't know what to do! I can't call the high sheriff 'cause he might 'spect foul play. Please Mr. McCullough, I need help."
Without another question McCullough said, "Okay, I can do that. What is your address again?"
Eugene repeated it and said, "Thank you so much! I'll turn the porch light on for you."
McCullough said, "Okay, I'm comin' in the Cadillac."
Eugene hung up the phone and lost his composure. We all died laughing. The tape was played many times over the next few days.
Two months to the day, 2am, Eugene called him again.
"Hello," answered McCullough.
Eugene started in own him immediately.
"This is Jesse Ward at ...... When are you goin' to pick up this damn body? That dude done nearly rotted through my couch! Maggots are marchin' in formation all over the floor and buzzards be peekin' in the windows!"
McCullough was more than a little bit pissed off.
"I went to that house and there wasn't no dead body there! You better hope I never find out who you is or you will be sorry! You hear me?"
Eugene hung up the phone and turned off the recorder. We played the tape to so many people we wore it out.
A few months later we were out for summer vacation. Bruce and I were riding around and I told him about Eugene making the calls to McCullough, probably for the tenth time. Out of the blue Bruce said, "Let's go to the funeral home and talk to him."
Ordinarily I wouldn't have considered it for a second, but Bruce knew him well and he wasn't likely to kill the grandson of someone he owed money to, I said it was fine with me.
McCullough was sitting on his porch in the dark. Bruce announced our presence as soon as he opened his car door. McCullough immediately invited us to join him. For the next hour we just sat and listened. He was happy to have a live audience and he made the most of it. We got a long version of the radio show without the dedications and commercials. We had a blast.
A few months later the McCullough Funeral Home burned to the ground and Marcello McCullough perished in the fire. As far as I know a cause was never determined. He died as he lived, a mystery and a local legend.