Texas Standard » Stories from TexasStories from Texas are written for and recorded for the Texas Standard radio program. They're written by W.F Strong and edited for broadcast by Texas Standard producers.Texas Standard airs Monday through Friday on more than 20 public radio stations across Texas. Visit texasstandard.org/listen to find when it airs where you are. Texas Standard is hosted by David Brown, and infrequently by Laura Rice from KUT Radio in Austin, and Lauren Silverman from KERA Radio in Dallas.
Stories from Texas are written for and recorded for the Texas Standard radio program. They're written by W.F Strong and edited for broadcast by Texas Standard producers.Texas Standard airs Monday through Friday on more than 20 public radio stations across Texas. Visit texasstandard.org/listen to find when it airs where you are. Texas Standard is hosted by David Brown, and infrequently by Laura Rice from KUT Radio in Austin, and Lauren Silverman from KERA Radio in Dallas.More from Texas Standard » Stories from Texas »
A couple of weeks ago I read a book called "The Lion the Living Room," which was about how our domestic cats are just little lions. I thought, 'that's nothing. I grew up with dinosaurs in the alley.' They looked for all the world like little dinosaurs – at least to us kids they did. When you'd get down on their level, lying on the ground, seeing them eye to eye, they looked prehistoric and formidable. You had to be careful, being eye to eye that way, because they could shoot blood out of theirs. You also couldn't stay on the ground too long because the little dinosaurs' favorite prey would soon be all over you – big red ants – harvester ants. They'd eat 100 of those red ants a day. The dinosaur I'm talking about, so plentiful in my boyhood, was the horny toad. They were also called horn frogs or horned lizards, and we considered those the scientific names for them. We were wrong, though. The truly scientific name is Phrynosoma Cornutum. Where have all the horny toads gone? When I was ten, I could walk out in the back alley, a landscape of caliche and goat heads, and you could find dozens of horny toads in just a few minutes. Even though we were barefoot much of the summer, we never went out there barefoot. Stepping on a Lego barefoot is almost imperceptible compared to the attention stepping on a horny toad will command. It will certainly focus your mind as few things can. Goat heads, too, have earned no small share of respect in this regard. Many people theorize that horny toads, officially listed as endangered in Texas since 1977, have disappeared because of pesticides or the arrival of the fire ants. "As always, it isn't one thing," says Bill Brooks, a founding member of the Horned Lizard Conservation Society of Texas. He told me that "it's a combination of things" that created a perfect storm of bad news for horny toads. Brooks said these include the "destruction of habitat, over collection by us humans, feral cats, blue grass taking over, reducing hiding spaces, pesticide use, and yes, also the invasion of fire ants." The first challenge for horny toads was the crazy promotions run by businesses, particularly movie theaters and gas stations back in the '60s. You could get a free or half-priced ticket at some movie theaters by just showing up with a horny toad. Sometimes gas stations would give you a free gallon of gas for a horny toad. I have no idea what they did with them. Perhaps they sold them by putting ads in the back of comic books, the Ebay of that day, and shipped them up north where no doubt their days in some eight year old's shoe box were numbered. The lion in the living room may have been involved. Bill Brooks said that he has seen coyotes try to eat them, but rarely successfully. The horny toads release a foul-tasting chemical from their eyes and the coyotes drop them. They are also quite good at puffing themselves up and looking quite menacing which gives them some added protection against coyotes, and snakes, too. And then the fire ants drove out the red ants, which the horny toads won't eat. Having been bit by both, I understand their reluctance. Sadly, the horny toads are fighting a losing battle for survival. You can find them where people are not. There are still a good number on remote ranches. "Around Kenedy," Bill told me, "there are healthy numbers." Just sad to hear of their plight. I do miss the little guys. To me they are as Texas as rattlesnakes, longhorns or Willie Nelson, which is why they are the Official Texas State Reptile.
Andy Warhol summed up our modern, technology-driven world: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." But Barbara Jordan turned this idea on its head. In 15 minutes, she delivered a speech that gave her lasting, worldwide fame. She was only 38 when she, on national television, argued for the indictment of Richard M. Nixon for high crimes and misdemeanors. Surrounded by more senior members of the House Judiciary Committee, mostly men with far more experience in government and law, Jordan gave a speech that was so brilliant, she stunned the committee and mesmerized those watching on television. Here is how she opened: "Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: 'We, the people.' It's a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that 'We, the people.' I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in 'We, the people.' Today I am an inquisitor. An hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution." Jordan's Watergate speech is flawless in its eloquence. Few people ever reach these persuasive heights – you find it in Lincoln, and Kennedy and Martin Luther King. And you find it here in Barbara Jordan, a rare talent for setting logic on fire. She was persuasive because she was anchored in the Constitution rather than anger or political posturing. Many worried at the time that agreeing to file articles of impeachment was the same as throwing Richard Nixon out of the White House without due process. She opens the constitution and teaches: "It is wrong, I suggest, it is a misreading of the Constitution for any member here to assert that for a member to vote for an article of impeachment means that that member must be convinced that the President should be removed from office. The Constitution doesn't say that." Jordan had a beautiful blend of legal and common language, a style that the man on the street can follow and be moved by. She tried to allay these fears by explaining, in Constitutional terms, that all the House can do is vote for impeachment, which is an indictment. The Senate must have the trial and decide guilt or innocence – and punishment. She again follows the technical explanation with a simpler one: "The framers of this Constitution were very astute. They did not make the accusers and the judgers — and the judges the same person." She follows this razor-like rationale, guided only by the Constitution, to this conclusion: "Has the President committed offenses, and planned, and directed, and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That's the question. We know that. We know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision." Nixon resigned a few days later. I don't think he cared to face this inquisitor. And it wasn't just Jordan's infallible logic that supporters admired and opponents feared. It was her divine voice and impeccable diction that animated that logic, seeming to place it beyond rebuttal. I have a friend, Dr. Juliet Garcia, who served on a bank board with Jordan. She says Jordan "could read the agenda and make it sound profound." When Barbara died in 1996, having devoted her life to serving Texas, Ann Richards remembered her this way. "There was simply something about her that made you proud to be a part of the country that produced her. And she forever redefined what it meant to be a Texan in the eyes of this nation." Jordan's life was truly a succession of firsts: first African-American woman to serve in the Texas State Senate, first African-American Texan elected to Congress, first woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, first woman to have a statue erected in her honor at UT Austin, and – this makes me smile – even in death she achieved another first. She was the first African American to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery. I do miss her. We sure could use her voice, and her logic, today.
About six months ago, I took a look at songs about Texas towns – "Amarillo by Morning," "Galveston," "La Grange," "Streets of Laredo," "China Grove," etc. Now I figure, why not just do Texas? Let's talk about songs that show their love for Texas in a Texas-sized way – paying homage to the whole state and her irresistible charms. So this would leave out songs like those already mentioned, and also those that have Texas in the title, but are either primarily instrumental songs or have no specific lyrics of Texas praise or adoration. Much as I love Stevie Ray Vaughn's "Texas Flood," it doesn't qualify here. Neither does "The Yellow Rose of Texas," since it is a song about loving one incredible Texas woman, but not the state. We must begin, I suppose, with our official state song, "Texas, Our Texas," written in 1924, by William Marsh, a British immigrant from Liverpool. Another early classic would have to be "Deep in the Heart of Texas," written in 1941 and first recorded by Perry Como. But probably the best-known version is this one by Gene Autry. Just a few years later, Ernest Tubb gave us another classic that could have been used by The Texas Travel Bureau as their theme song; "There's a Little Bit of Everything in Texas." Willie Nelson covered it in 1993. In 1975, The Charlie Daniels Band released its Texas anthem simply titled. "Texas," on the album "Nightrider." Sometimes we show how much we love something by how much we miss it – by how much we long for it. That's what George Strait did in "Can't See Texas From Here," from his 1982 album, "Strait from the Heart." And I believe it was. Gary P. Nunn gave us "London Homesick Blues," which is hard not to put on the list. But from the same 1984 album, "Home With the Armadillo," we get "What I Like About Texas." That's dead solid perfect. Bet Gary hadn't had to pay for a Beltbuster or Blizzard since 1984. I first heard the song "Texas" by the British singer Chris Rea while driving across west Texas in 1989, appropriately under a big yellow moon, on Highway 90 south of Van Horn, a road that goes on forever. And you certainly know "God Blessed Texas," which has been ubiquitous since its release more than 25 years ago, believe it or not. It's by Little Texas. Vince Gill sang "I'll Take Texas" in 1998. And his song did indeed take Texas by storm. We wrap up our list appropriately with Miranda Lambert, with "Texas Pride," from 2001. And that's an ideal title, because her first professional singing gig was with the Texas Pride Band. That's my list. What's on yours?
The Worst Land Survey in U.S. History By W. F. Strong You can never underestimate the value of a good friendship forged early in life. If not for such a friendship, Texas would be nearly 1,000 square miles smaller. Before I get to the friendship, come with me up to the northwest corner of the panhandle where Texas meets Oklahoma and New Mexico. If you were looking at a map you would see that the border between Oklahoma and New Mexico doesn't meet up exactly with the border between Texas and New Mexico. The line makes a jog to the left. It goes 2.3 miles left before heading straight south. That jog is the result of a survey error that some have called the worst survey error in U.S. history. But it isn't just a two mile error – that error gets bigger as it continues south 310 miles to the bottom Texas-New Mexico corner, where it turns west and heads for El Paso. All total the mistake amounts to a 942 square mile error, a land mass bigger than Houston, though long and skinny, like a gerrymandered voting district. In truth, that land should have gone to New Mexico. That was what was supposed to happen when Texas sold off its northern and western territories for ten million dollars in 1850. The border between Texas and the New Mexico Territory was to be exactly along the 103rd Meridian. When the official survey was undertaken, almost ten years later, there was a problem with water,, Indians, stars, algebra and math, which all contributed to the error that ended up a blessing for Texas. Naturally, there's quite a good long story behind the mistake. It is far too complex for these few minutes. I will give you the "cut to the chase version." A man named John H. Clark was hired to do the survey and plant the monuments along the 103rd meridian. He started from the south and surveyed northward until he ran out of access to water. So he stopped and said, "I'll just go up to the north end of Texas and come down." So he did. Clark started again northwest of present day Dalhart and headed south until the native Americans frightened him off. Though he was about 70 miles from connecting his two lines, he figured it was good enough and turned in his work. His two lines wouldn't have intersected anyway. The problem was his northern starting point was about 2.3 miles west of where it should have been and his southern corner was nearly 3.8 miles west of where it should have been. Consequently, that border slides imperceptibly 1 ½ miles ever so gently southwest over a distance of 310 miles. Pull up a google map on your phone and align the southeastern corner of New Mexico with your left straight-edge phone border. You will see that the border slants off to the right up at the top. That's the error. It amounts to 603,348 acres. About ¾ the size of the King Ranch. Well, nobody knew it was wrong and so the bad survey based on poor calculations was certified by the U.S. in 1891 and it became the legal boundary. By the time New Mexico was about to get statehood with the Enabling Act of 1910, it had become aware of Clark's error and slipped into the statehood law a clause saying that the eastern boundary would be the true 103rd meridian. New Mexico would get its land back. All was going well and nobody was paying attention to the land grab except for John Farwell, who was an original investor in the XIT ranch. Those were the same investors who essentially built our state capital in Austin. Well, he realized that the XIT would lose hundreds of thousands of acres (and mineral rights) if the New Mexico plan went through as it was. He couldn't get any legislators to listen and so he did what we all do in times of trouble: he said, "Who do I know?" Just so happened that he knew President William Howard Taft. They had been good friends during their college years at Yale. So he went to see his old buddy, Howard. He explained the predicament and Taft immediately summoned powerful men to his office and told them that the Clark border would be the legal border when New Mexico was made a state or it wouldn't be made one. He said that since the boundary had existed for more than fifty years, and had been certified 20 years before, it had to be grandfathered in. Otherwise, people who believed they were Texans would suddenly be in New Mexico and litigation over land titles would never end. And that is how a survey error, and an old friendship ended up making Texas almost a thousand square miles bigger than it was supposed to be. Once again, it's all about who you know. A final note of interest. There is a town out in the Panhandle called Farwell, Texas. It's just a few feet on the Texas side of the border with New Mexico. It is named after John Farwell. Had he failed to convince Taft to keep the old border line, the town named for him would have become Farwell, New Mexico. Sources: Brock, Ralph H. "Perhaps the Most Incorrect of any Land Survey in the United States" Southern Historical Quarterly, April 2006, pp. 431-462. Haley, J. Evets. The XIT Ranch of Texas and the Early Days of the Llano Estacado, University of Oklahoma Press, 1953. Hoover, Mike. "The Southeast Corner of New Mexico." The Texas Surveyor, May, 2015, pp. 16-23.
We have many endangered species in the world. Among the better-known at-risk animals are snow leopards, Asian elephants and orangutans. In Texas, we have the gray wolf and ocelot as endangered animals, among others. Endangered reptiles here include the Texas indigo snake and the horned lizard. But that's not my focus today. That's just a segue to talk about something else that's on my mind, and that's endangered words. They are words that, through lack of use, or through use seemingly restricted to the more senior of us Texans, run the risk of dying out when we do. Now "y'all" and "fixin' to" and the like are safe. They have vast popularity. They have even been observed migrating up north. My endangered list is comprised of words that are becoming scarce and may disappear altogether, only to be seen caged up in old dictionaries in the future. I want to make sure to clarify that I'm not claiming the following words are endangered for everyone. Many Texans still use them daily. I'm just claiming that they are becoming far less common than they once were. Mosey is one such word. It used to be quite popular and still is used often among octogenarians. But you never see it or hear it venturing out among those under 40. Often when you do hear it from someone under 40, it is used in caricature. Reckon is another word I reckon is headed for true scarcity in the next few decades. That would be a shame because it does have a wonderful place in the linguistic ecosystem. It fills a niche and is not easily replaced. One can say "I guess," or "I suppose," but neither have the beautiful contemplative nature of "I reckon," when said with eyebrows raised and tipping your hat back. It is the pronouncement of agreement reluctantly concluded. Supper. This used to be the dominant word for the evening meal. Dinner was at noon. But as we've become more urban, supper has been pushed out by dinner. Ice house and ice box. Ice house used to be a common expression for running to the convenience store or making a beer run: "Gonna run over to the ice house a minute." Ice box is a synonym for the fridge: "Martha, we got any Blue Bell in the ice box?" Yonder. "It seems that yonder is most popular out yonder in the country." To make sure I was on the right track, I conducted a survey on the net and found a few more words folks agreed seemed to be endangered: Britches refers to pants, of course: "Get your work britches on and let's get goin'" Britches is still used among those over 60, but not so popular among the under 30 crowd. Cattywampus for catty-cornered. Cattywampus is one word and catty-cornered is hyphenated. Both are spelled with two t's and neither has anything to do with cats: "The flower shop is cattywampus to the Exxon station." Cotton pickin.' "Just a cotton pickin' minute!" There could be lots of reasons for this. Many Texans over 50 or so, have memories of pickin' cotton. Even though combines mostly took over decades ago, the expression remains. "In high cotton," too, hangs on. It means "having it easy." Dreckly – sometimes said "di-rectly" – has nothing to do with direction or going straight to something. It is about time and in Texas, has the meaning of manana in Spanish. "Yeah, I'll be gettin' to mowin' that lawn dreckly," which may well mean in a few hours when I "finish watchin' the Astros play." Sam Hill. "What the Sam Hill is going on here?!" My father said it so often I thought Sam Hill was a relative I'd never met, but I hoped to. Seemed that he lived an exciting life. But it was just a euphemism for "hell." It's used in place of "What the hell is goin' on here?!" and since I can now say hell on the radio, you can see why Sam Hill is endangered. Fair to middlin' is interesting. It's fading away as a common expression but perhaps finding a second wind by means of its malaprop. Some Texans have taken to saying "fair to Midland," which makes sense if you are driving from El Paso, or maybe from Abilene. Fair to Midland, rain in Odessa. And some words that many people said they believed were dying out – and sadly so – were these: Please and thank you. I hope not. I'll do what I can right now to help. Thank you for listening. Please stay tuned to The Texas Standard.
One of the most fascinating Texas Rangers of all time was Samuel Hamilton Walker — no relation, we should say right off the bat, to Chuck Norris' fictional character Cordell Walker. Many Ranger aficionados rate Sam Walker the second-most-important Texas Ranger of all time, behind Jack Coffee Hays, with whom Walker rangered. Now that's a dream team. Samuel Walker arrived in Texas six years after Texas had won its independence. In five more years, in 1847, he would be dead. But in those five years he would defend San Antonio from Mexican forces, invade Mexico four times, escape from a Mexican prison and help design one of the most famous guns in history, the Colt Walker six-shooter. Walker's first foray into Mexico was part of the ill-fated Mier expedition, which was for the purpose of punishing Mexico for its illegal incursions into San Antonio. Walker was not yet a Texas Ranger. He was with a group of men who believed they would repay Mexico for their illegal incursions into Texas. His group was attacked by a much larger army of Mexican troops who engaged them in defense of the Mier. 180 Texans were taken as prisoners. Santa Anna ordered them all shot, but cooler heads in the Mexican government prevailed and a decimation instead: one in 10 would die. The Texans were ordered to draw a bean from a pot. Among the 159 white beans were 17 black ones. Those who got a black bean would be executed on the spot; those who drew white beans would live. Sam Walker got a white bean. The prisoners were marched 800 miles across Mexico's brutal deserts. Walker mentioned in his journal of the Mier Expedition that he would not trade Texas for 100 Mexicos. He was however, impressed with the fine architecture he encountered in the churches of San Miguel de Allende, which remains true for the many expatriate Texans who live there today. Once in the capital, some of the prisoners, including Walker, was imprisoned at Tacubaya, suburb of Mexico City, and some were marched another 100 miles and incarcerated in the infamous Perote Prison. Walker's group was forced to do road work, including building a road from Mexico City to Santa Anna´s summer villa, which further enraged Walker. This amounted to a lot of salt in a deep wound, and he nurtured his loathing for Santa Anna — indeed, for all Mexicans — all his life, so much so that his friends called him "mad Walker." There is a much-shared myth about Walker's time imprisoned in Mexico. The story goes that he was ordered to dig a hole for a flagpole and raise the Mexican flag. According to one version of the legend, he put a dime at the bottom of the hole and vowed to return one day, reclaim the dime, and raise the Texas flag. Several years later, the story goes, he retrieved his dime when he returned with American forces to occupy Mexico City. It's a good story, but probably not true. Walker never mentioned it in his journals. Also, the flagpole in the various versions of the myth is always in Perote Prison, in the state of Vera Cruz, and Walker was never incarcerated there. He was, however, part of Winfield Scott's invasion force that sacked the prison in 1847, and that may well be where the legend has its origins. Walker eventually escaped from the Tacubaya prison — a story that would make a good novel in itself — and made it back to Texas. He joined up with Jack Hays and the Texas Rangers in 1844 and fought in many of the most famous Indian battles. When General Zachary Taylor sent out a call in 1845 for volunteers to scout for his federal troops, Walker immediately signed up. He ran messages through the Mexican lines to keep Fort Texas (soon to be Fort Brown) aware of Taylor´s plans for invading Mexico. Walker led the charge in the battle for Monterrey. It was after Taylor's forces had secured Monterrey, in 1846, that Walker took a brief furlough and traveled back east. There he gave Samuel Colt some ideas for improving Colt's earlier model of his revolver called the Paterson pistol. Colt, in gratitude, named a special, very heavy model of his new six-shooter after Walker. Walker next joined up with General Winfield Scott's campaign to pacify Mexico City. Though he was officially made a U.S. soldier, everybody still thought of him as a Texas Ranger and called him Ranger Walker. Scott's army invaded Mexico at Vera Cruz and advanced from there toward Mexico City. On the way, they sacked Perot Prison, released the prisoners and turned it into a fort for the American forces. But Walker would not live to make it back to Texas. He was to die a few months later, fighting the army of his old nemesis, Santa Anna, at the town of Huamantla, where Santa Anna had positioned his forces to stop the U.S. troops' march to rescue the American garrison under siege at Puebla. Walker led his company, which was ahead of the main U.S. force, into battle there. His men fought fiercely until the main force arrived to defeat Santa Anna, but Walker didn´t get to enjoy the victory. He lay dead; his prized Colt Walkers at his side. He was 32. In retaliation, his men went on a wild rampage, sacking, looting and pillaging the town. Walker's body was returned to San Antonio; eventually it was interred in the Odd Fellows Cemetery next to the unidentified remains of the defenders of the Alamo. It's said that Walker was not a man you would much notice in everyday life. He was of average size, and quiet. But in battle he was a lion. In his Notes of the Mexican War 1846-1848, J. Jacob Oswandel observed of Walker that ''war was his element, the bivouac his delight, and the battlefield his playground." Walker lived more in his short life than your average ten men live in their long lives combined. He is the Walker, Texas Ranger, that should be most remembered.
When I was fifteen, weighed down by concerns about high school – algebra tests, term papers, girls – there was no better spot in the world to silence the mind than on top of a 35 foot windmill at my uncle's farm. In the spring, it was heaven up there on that platform. To the north I could see hundreds of black angus cattle dotting the new grass of irrigated pastures, a scene fitting for Van Gogh's brush. To the south, way south, there were citrus orchards. The southern breeze blew in the sweet smell of orange blossoms. In the brushlands of south Texas, that was the second harbinger of spring. The first I could see to the west, the new sheen of emerald green covering miles of mesquite. The huisache trees, too, were adding their bright golds to the mix. Just a few days before it had been a bleak, brown landscape, but overnight, nature turned on her lights and from the platform high above it all, as birds sang with greater enthusiasm, and butterflies fluttered among the bluebonnets far below, I could witness the world being born again. And the windmill turned and squeaked. I think a windmill squeaking may be the only squeaking in life that is comforting. It's soothing somehow, perhaps because it is the sound of life itself being pumped from the ground. We used to keep metal coffee cups on hooks down by the water tank so we could get a fresh drink of water, delivered pure and cold from deep in the earth, whenever we wanted. I think photographs of windmills are the pictures Texans seem to love most of all. There is something romantic about them. The giant turbines are not loved like windmills, perhaps because they are so enormous they overpower rather than blend with the landscape. And windmills stand alone, never in groups of twenty of forty. Windmills seem independent and solitary, historically symbolic of the Texas character. They have a unique place in our heritage. They transformed much of the land from arid to vibrant. This reminds me of a poem by the great cowboy poet, Mike Moutoux. He makes this point about windmills far better than I can. A FITTING MONUMENT by Mike Moutoux In the dry land stands the monument of a dreamer It is a testament to hope; to years of yearning Standing tall above the grasses, rocks and scrub oak Below a cloudless sky and sun so brightly burning No babbling brooks cross here, just silent sand arroyos Few linger here at all; fewer still would stake a claim Only fools and dreamers could love this barren land It does not suffer fools; dreamers love it just the same 'Twas the Homestead Act that brought him here to dream and sweat It was the solitude and grass that it made it feel right But there were months when precious rains were non-existent Each cloudless day brought another worried weary night All that changed when the Aermotor windmill was delivered The well was dug, the tower raised; each rod and gear in place The wind blew as always, but now it turned a shiny fan And both the cowman's heart and dreams begin to race The cowman would talk about that day for years to come How the blades spun, the rods creaked, how he paced and paced And then water, precious water, poured from pipe to trough Giving hope a thing a man could actually taste Within weeks trails appeared around the water trough As thirsty critters, one by one, found the water there of course Not just cows, but the antelope, fox and deer drank there The tower, a beacon, led them to their water source The story of the dreamer is old but not forgotten The tower still stands although its working years are spent A testament to one man's hope and all those years of yearning For a dreamer and cowman, a most fitting monument. For more of Mike Moutoux's work, go to www.mikemoutoux.com
As I was watching the Olympics, I began thinking about all the great athletes who have come from Texas and gone on to be the best in the world. Though not an Olympic champion, I thought of one Texan who stood unexpectedly at the pinnacle of his sport for an impressive number of years. He was born and raised in Galveston. His life seemed defined by an incident that occurred when he was quite young. When he came home from school he would often avoid a bully who had once attacked him in the street. That bully was older and larger so he thought it best to stay out of his way. But Jack's sister saw this and got angry. She insisted that he fight the bully. "In fact," Jack remembered, "She pushed me into the fray. There was nothing to do but fight so I put all I had into it... and finally whipped my antagonist." Jack's reputation as a fighter was born. Later, working on the Galveston shipping docks, the vigorous work strengthened his muscles and toughened his body. He learned boxing from the stout men on the docks and began fighting in amateur matches, winning most all of them. This was the 1890s. When he could learn no more in Galveston, he hopped a train out of there, hoping that would take him to a storybook future. In many ways it did. Over the next decade, Jack became known in boxing as The Galveston Giant. The son of freed slaves, he worked his way through all the black boxers and some of the white ones, too, to get a shot at the World Heavyweight Champion, James Jeffries. But Jeffries wouldn't fight a black man. He claimed it was not something a champion should do. So rather than risk his title, he retired, undefeated. Tommy Burns became the champion and Johnson chased him all the way to Australia and finally got a match. It would be in Sydney. Burns would get $35,000 and Johnson would get $5,000. Burns' manager would referee the fight. It went fourteen rounds and it was stopped before Burns got knocked out. Johnson was declared the winner. He wrote in his autobiography, "The little colored boy from Galveston had defeated the world's champion boxer and, for the first and only time in history, a black man held one of the greatest honors that exists in the field of sports..." Jack London, the famous novelist, covered the fight for The New York Herald. He wrote, "The fight? There was no fight. No Armenian massacre could compare with the hopeless slaughter that took place today. The fight, if fight it could be called, was like that between a pygmy and a colossus... But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you! The White Man must be rescued." And that is where the notion of The Great White Hope came from: Jack London. The World Heavyweight Champion, Jack Johnson, accepted his victory with a contrasting humility. He recalled: "I did not gloat over the fact that a white man had fallen. My satisfaction was only in that one man had conquered another and that I had been the conqueror... The hunt for a 'white hope' began, not only with great earnestness and intenseness, but with ill-concealed bitterness." So people started sending telegrams and letters to Jim Jeffries, begging him to come back and take the title from Johnson. He initially repeated what he had said before: "I have said I will never box a colored fighter and I won't change my mind." But money can work magic on prejudice. For the guarantee of $120,000 from promoter Tex Rickard, for the fight and the film rights, Jeffries signed on to what was billed as "The Fight of the Century." It was held in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910. It was well over 100 degrees at fight time – 2:30 in the afternoon under a cloudless sky. Johnson said the "...red hot sun poured down on our heads. The great crowd was burning to a crisp." The betting was heavily in favor of Jeffries – about 2 to 1. A reporter from Palestine, Texas, wrote that when Johnson was asked how he felt about that, he said, "I know I'm the short ender in the betting and I know why. It's a dark secret, but when the fight starts we'll be color blind. I'm going in to win." And he did. He knocked out Jeffries in the 15th round. Johnson said, "Whatever possible doubt may have existed as to my claim to the championship, was wiped out." Jack London agreed. He had called out for the great white hope himself and wrote that Johnson had decisively defeated the white champion. London doubted that Jeffries, even in his prime, could have defeated this "amazing negro (boxer) from Texas." He said he knocked down the man who had never been knocked down and knocked out the man who had never been knocked out. "Johnson is a wonder," he concluded. "If ever a man won by nothing more fatiguing than a smile, Johnson won today." The film of the fight was considered an immoral display and banned in many states and cities. Governor Campbell of Texas cited those grounds in saying he would discourage authorities from showing it Texas and would convene the legislature to "promote this end." Muhammad Ali, who was often compared to Jack Johnson for his unshakeable confidence and easy-going banter in the ring, had enormous admiration for Jack Johnson. He said, "Jack Johnson was a big inspiration for what he did out of the ring. He was so bold. Jack Johnson was a black man back when white people lynched negroes on weekends. This man was told if you beat a white man we're going to shoot you from the audience and he said well just go ahead and shoot my black butt cuz I'm going to knock him out. He had to be a bad, bad black man cuz wasn't no Black Muslims to defend him, no NAACP in 1909 no MOV or any black organizations, no Huey Newton, no Angela Davis, no Malcolm X. He was by himself... He was the greatest. He had to be the greatest." My special thanks to my good friend James Dennis who suggested this topic as especially worthy of the Stories from Texas series.
At 60, I didn't expect ever to fall in love again. I thought that sort of euphoric madness that comes with infatuation was all in the past – reserved for younger people. But I was wrong. When she came into my life, the world stopped – and changed forever. I first saw her in photographs. Someone showed me pictures – black and white – grainy photos. She was interesting, but the pictures didn't do her justice. When I met her in person, I thought she was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. I was mesmerized. She was 7 ½ pounds and 19 inches of perfection. At 60, she was my first girl. Perhaps not a bonafide miracle, but for me she was. My eternal valentine. We named her Scarlett. And Paloma-Maria after her two grandmothers. That very night I began keeping a journal for her. I wrote: You are just a day old now. You are my ONLY girl, which makes you precious beyond measure. I will keep this little journal of our first years together. I will tell you what amazed you and what delighted you. Your first words will be here. Your first steps. I will do all I can, as will your mama, to make sure you are exposed to all the influences that will make you an extraordinary woman – one who is intellectually curious, adventurous, brave, full of self-confidence, but also empathetic and kind, a woman who is strong, and gentle, too, both a warrior and a poet. Three years have passed now. People have started asking me how raising a girl, at least for me, is different from raising boys. I say, "Don't know much, but let me tell you what I didn't know." Until I had a girl, I didn't know about spontaneous politeness and gratitude. Returning from the beach she said: "Thank you for taking me to the beach." Until I had a girl I didn't have a child who thought I had super powers. She handed me scissors and a paper and said, "Can you make me a bicycle?" I said, "How about a rectangle?" Until I had a girl I didn't know you had to dance to the opening theme song of Dora the Explorer and Elena of Avalor. Scarlett's motto is never miss a chance to dance. Until I had a girl I sang the lullabies. But she's not pleased with the way I sing them so she often takes over. Until I had a girl I didn't know that when you took her for a walk around the neighborhood in her big stroller, you had to take her dolls, too. I didn't know that dolls left behind would be "sad." Until I had a girl I wasn't awakened this way, singing Happy Birthday. I couldn't have been any more moved if it had actually been my birthday. Such technicalities don't matter to her, though. People need to celebrate their birthdays at least once a month – to appreciate the simple joy of just being alive. Until I had a girl I didn't know there were so many colors in the world. She has 300 around her easel. She likes to paint vermillion crocodiles. To me they are just collages of triangles and squiggles, but I put them on the fridge anyway, and brag about her Picasso-like potential. Until I had a girl I never got my nails painted. One day she got her mom's polish and wanted to give me a manicure. I resisted. My wife shot me that "Don't be a Neanderthal" look. I said, "Okay, one hand." I forgot about it and later that afternoon I suddenly realized I was likely the only guy at the gun show with autumn mist nails. A man there noticed and said, "Next time – go camo." Until I had a girl I never had a child so empathetic. She wants to know how I'm feeling, if I'm happy or sad, or if my anything hurts and if I might need a doctor – and lucky for me, she happens to be one. Until I had a girl I didn't have a child so young so self-aware. I asked her if she was mama's girl and dada's girl. She said, "I'm Scarlett's girl." Gotta love that. Until I had a girl I didn't know that Valentine's Day was so important. It's her favorite holiday, along with Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and July 4th. But truly with her loving heart, Valentine's was made for her. It's a week away, but she's already popped the question: "Dada, will you be my Valentine." Yes, always and forever. And your mama's, too. After all, she did give me you.
When settlers first came upon Jacob's Well near Wimberley around 1850, they did not encounter a swimming hole. They discovered a magical fountain of beautifully clear water, 12 feet in diameter, sometimes spouting four or five feet above the surface. They named it Jacob's Well because of its Biblical magnificence. Over the next 70 years, thirsty central Texas pulled water from the Trinity aquifer that feeds the artesian fountain. It was slowly tamed but it is still wildly beautiful there. You can jump off outcroppings rising 10 to 15 feet above the well, into eternal 68-degree waters. Quite an arctic blast in the middle of a Texas summer. My focus here is not, however, on the idyllic surface world of Jacob's Well. I'm interested in what lies beneath. Far, far beneath. In Stephen Harrigan's novel "Jacob's Well," he says it is "like a portal from another dimension, a world of unnatural vibrance and mystery." Harrigan logged over 20 dives in the cave more than thirty years ago. The well takes an initial plunge through 23 feet of well-lit water to an apparent bottom, but then it veers off into a descent of increasing darkness. I visited with Gregg Tatum who has logged over 250 dives there. He says it is no place for a novice. Only cave certified divers with substantial experience in cave diving should go deep into Jacob's Well. He says, "It gets so dark you can taste it." Novelist Harrigan describes his character's response similarly: "He turned off his light and felt the darkness rush in... exquisite blackness like a weight. If he had been on Mars he couldn't have felt farther from the familiar world above him." Eight or nine divers have lost their lives in Jacob's Well. It is difficult to get an exact number – could be more. For that reason, Jacob's Well is known as one of the most dangerous diving spots in the world. Tatum, however, bristles at that description. He says that the Well is only dangerous if you "don't know what you are doing." Still, Tatum says that there is no room for error. He takes at least two, and sometimes three of everything – two knives, two tanks, three lights. Lighting is sometimes more important than air. It is likely that some of the doomed divers ran out of air because they first ran out of light. Another hazard is the silt on the bottom. It is easy for the novice to accidentally stir up the silt so he cannot tell up from down or which way is in or out. The Jacob's Well Exploration Project, of which Gregg Tatum is the director, has mapped the cave system. It plunges to 140 feet at its deepest point; 14 stories underground, underwater. There are two tunnels, A and B. A is 4300 feet long (three-quarters of a mile) and B is 1300 feet long. It takes five hours round trip to get to the terminus of tunnel A. Tatum believes that if one had time to work at the terminus, there might be a way to gain access to more of the cave. There is a strong flow, too, which divers must struggle against to get down into the depths. Authorities once tried to seal off the cave. They welded a steel grate at about 70 feet in. Within months it was removed by rogue divers who left a note saying, "You can't keep us out." A particularly interesting feature of the cave is called the "Birth Canal." This two-foot square portal is found at the rear of a fairly large underwater room, 75 feet from the surface. The Birth Canal is situated at the top of a long, steep, gravel-floored slope which is notoriously unstable. At the base of this slope, divers encounter a narrow restriction that, depending on conditions, can be as tight as 15 inches in height. Negotiating this restriction sometimes requires divers to push rocks and gravel out of the way, pull forward a few inches and then repeat the process several times. Once past the restriction, the cave widens considerably, but the ceiling remains only 2 to 3 feet high. Clearly, this is not a place for the claustrophobic. Gregg notes that divers occasionally find that gravel that was pushed aside to gain entrance has been replaced with more material from higher up the slope, making the opening appear to close shut behind them. Even for an experienced cave diver, this event can give one pause. Divers now use side-mounted tanks to lower their profiles and make them more streamlined as they slide through narrow passageways with less risk of getting stuck. And it is a sublime underwater world. There are no stalactites and stalagmites, but there are impressive limestone walls of many colors, vibrant and muted. There are no bats, of course, but there are catfish, perch, turtles – at the beginning of the cave – and then deep in, there are blind Texas salamanders to keep you company. You can't scuba dive there without a special permit from Hays County, and the only entity that has one is the Jacob's Well Exploration Project. However, you can go along with them, so to speak, by video, on their website, Jacob's Well Exploration Projectg. You will be diving deep into the heart of Texas in no time. As for me, I couldn't dive there, even with training, and I'll tell you why. When I was six years old my mother took us to swim in a pool at her friend's house. It was unusual for a residential pool. The deep end was exceptionally deep. You couldn't see the bottom because of the shade that the big trees cast over it. My older brother, Shep, who was a practical joker extraordinaire, told me that it was 100 feet deep there and dared me to swim across it. Though I was a good swimmer already, I would not risk it. The idea that it was possibly bottomless and that strange creatures might be lurking down there, kept me in the shallow end. There is a name for this fear: bathophobia. It is not a fear of being clean: it is a fear of deep water that may hide unknown horrors. Fast forward 30 years: I went swimming at Jacob's Well in central Texas. When I learned that eight or nine people had drowned scuba diving in that cave system, my bathophobia was triggered. Just the thought of going down into those depths was to me the stuff Stephen King novels were made of. I stayed on the surface or near it, enjoying the well lit waters. But that was not so for everyone. Whereas I was disenchanted with the depths, the free divers and scuba divers were seduced, and still are, forever attracted to what lies beneath.