The Fire Inside

A $100 bill, four rocks of crack cocaine and a crusader's home up in flames. The tiny town of McNair struggles for its soul.

The young black man stands barefoot and handcuffed in the middle of Harrison Street, surrounded by a scrum of cops, most of whom are white. His vintage blue basketball shoes rest neatly on the pavement beside his feet. The officers have blocked traffic in both directions on the residential thoroughfare. As neighborhood children gather to watch, it begins to rain on this late spring day in McNair.

The deputy constable, a large blue-eyed man in civilian clothes, explains how a motorist flagged him down just minutes before to report that the young man in T-shirt and baggy jean shorts tried to sell him crack.

"We come out here to check him out," Deputy Marvin Keller says. The officers have searched the man and his shoes, and now they are scouring the adjacent ground. They can't find the crack.

Milton Collins has unleashed the dogs on McNair's dope dealers.
Deron Neblett
Milton Collins has unleashed the dogs on McNair's dope dealers.

Something doesn't add up: The guy claimed to have $200 on him, but the officers checked and found $485. That's highly suspicious in a part of town that's a "real hot spot for crack," Keller says.

But with no drugs as proof, they are forced to let the 23-year-old walk. The traffic and crowds disperse.

"We'll get him…," Keller says later.

"The Thrill Is Gone" bleats from the stereo as Milton Collins coasts through McNair with the ease of a man who has spent the better part of his adult life in this small community near Baytown. A bear of a man at 59, Collins sits way back in the driver's seat of his SUV, leaving just enough clearance for his belly behind the steering wheel.

His face is a road map of sorrows, worn down by a pair of divorces, a disabling back injury and a son in jail. Yet Collins laughs hard when given reason. And he finds solace in the landmarks he and fellow community leaders have left on this town of roughly 3,000.

He points proudly to the fire department where he was a volunteer in the '70s. His enthusiasm is only slightly dampened by the fact that the shiny trucks are hidden from view inside the brick edifice. A few blocks down, he rolls off-road to show two hulking water tanks that the community installed to improve water supplies.

But it's the J.D. Walker Community Center in sprawling green Edna Mae Washington Park that clearly enjoys pride of place in his universe. Collins parks in front of the long one-story building and smugly notes his framed head shot hanging among those of other founding members in the lobby. Before the center opened in 1979 there wasn't a whole lot for the kids to do, Collins explains. The bustle of summer camp now in session shows that has changed.

"This is great," he says in a voice not unlike Jimmy Carter's, as he peers into the white-tiled activity room where dozens of youngsters noisily play. Collins's doleful visage relaxes into a smile. "This is primary perfect right here."

Longtime McNair residents do not indulge in hope lightly. Experience has shown that whole generations can go awry. Collins moved here after marrying a local girl in 1959 when the burgeoning community wasn't much older than he. The young Louisiana native went on to become a chemical plant operator, earning a respectable living for his family until a ruptured disk left him disabled three years ago.

But even as Collins thrived, McNair went to hell.

Wheeling past the unassuming homes with their shade trees and pit barbecues the size of small locomotives, Collins wonders which ones harbor the dope dealers who took over the town. Are those three "suckers" playing cards behind the chain-link fence really playing cards? Or are they masking their purpose as they wait for customers to pull up? They should be out working honest jobs, Collins grouses.

He drives on past a scraggly old-timer walking down the street with his mouth agape.

"That old boy there used to be a good boy. You see how they go down?" he says over the blues pouring from the speakers. "We've got good people all throughout here -- just some of them went bad, brother."

The numerous Baptist churches seem to promise redemption for those who have fallen. Only the police have a higher profile in McNair. Officers in patrol cars crop up everywhere, interrogating suspicious characters on the streets, running background checks on unfamiliar vehicles and regularly arresting folks for infractions great and small.

"I'm glad to see them," Collins says of the men in uniform.

He and other leaders pleaded with the constable to move full-time forces into this unincorporated town. In so doing, they unleashed the fury of the dope dealers. With his brash, boastful style, Collins gained particular notice from the thugs.

In this gritty crusade to clean up McNair, Collins reaches back to the words of Martin Luther King. "If a man ain't got something he's willing to die for," he says stoically, "it ain't worth living."

A neighbor was the first to alert Collins to the strange object gleaming in his front yard in December. Collins checked it out and at first thought it was no big deal, just a brown beer bottle that someone had discarded. Then he noticed the rag stuffed into the top and the fluid inside. He picked up the bottle and whiffed the stench of gasoline.

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