By Junior Johnson
The year 1976 was a milestone of many events besides the 200th Birthday of the United States. The Apple Computer Company was established by Steve Jobs, NASA introduced its first Space Shuttle Enterprise, an outbreak of Legionaries Disease affected 4,000 people at an American Legion Convention, the Son of Sam terrorized New York City for almost a year, Fidel Castro became President of Cuba and the $2 bill was introduced.
These are just a few of the headlines that grabbed front pages of newspapers and television screens. However, an event took place in a little community called Whitehouse, Texas that made these events seem trivial.
I was working as a Branch Manager for Bancroft Paper and Chemical Company in Tyler, Texas and in my spare time worked as a Volunteer Fireman with the Whitehouse Volunteer Fire Department. I had the pleasure of working with a group of wonderful men who didn’t mind putting their lives on the line to help the people of our community.
Although I was never in a life threatening situation, I grew to respect the hard work.
The leader of our Fire Department was also the Chief of Police of Whitehouse and was a true professional in both areas.
There was a beautiful body of water called Lake Tyler near Whitehouse where, on summer weekends, hundreds of families and young people would span the shoreline. Smoke from BBQ Pits filled the air as everyone enjoyed the water. Cars would also cruise the beach, similar to the way kids would do on the streets in the movie American Graffiti.
Just for a day this all changed and the entire area was evacuated. In place of the swimmers and picnic goers there was local law enforcement personal and units from as far away as Dallas and Houston. Television stations had their remote vans broadcasting to all the major networks. Reporters from newspapers in the East Texas area were preparing their stories for publication.
Prior to the events of this day our Volunteer Fire Department traveled to Texas A&M University in College Station to complete a Fire Safety Course. Their program was one of the best in the area and we were pushed to our limits.
Six of us decided we deserved a treat for our hard work, so we drove two hours to Galveston. We arrived by mid afternoon and began to unwind with adult refreshments. We remained on the beach in Galveston until almost midnight and decided it was time to make the four hour trip back to Whitehouse.
As we were about to leave someone spotted a five foot sand shark that had washed ashore. Humor spread like wildfire and it was suggested that we pack the shark with ice and bring it back with us and place it at the waters edge in Lake Tyler. This seemed like a wonderful prank at the time and we set it in motion.
We arrived at Lake Tyler around 4 a.m. and placed our shark in a good location. We then hurried home for some much needed rest.
It seemed that I had just put my head on the pillow when the phone began ringing. It was around 8 a.m. and the Chief of Police was on the other end. I asked if there was a fire and he frantically said it was worse than that.
He first asked if I had told anyone about the shark and my response was a definite NO. He said that he had just returned from Lake Tyler and the place was swarming with law enforcement from Tyler, Houston, and Dallas, along with Television Crews from all the major networks. To top this off there was a crew of Marine Biologists on the way down from Texas A&M to try to understand how a sand shark came to be living in a fresh water lake, and how many more there may be in the water.
He was frantic and said that what had started out as a little joke had gotten out of hand. He was certain that he would lose his job as Chief of Police if anyone found out about his involvement. I assured him my lips were sealed.
The shark had been discovered early that morning by some young people who had arrived to get their spot set up by the water. Everyone had CB Radios back then and it was not long before authorities were there and had the area sealed off. All civilians were told to leave.
All the area Television stations ran the story at noon and newspaper reporters were preparing their story for the next edition. East Texas was buzzing about the shark in Lake Tyler.
It was not until late that afternoon when the wonderful Marine Biologists from Texas A&M released their findings which put everyone at ease. They concluded that pranksters must have put the shark in the water and the lake was safe to swim in.
Our little community finally returned to normal and not a word was said about our little adventure……..until now.
Hopefully after 40 years the Statute of Limitations has expired….