This is the story of what was luckiest letter ever mailed in Texas. It took about six months to reach its destination, which was Louisiana. But to say it was mailed is a bit of a stretch. It was handed to some people to be given to others and it bounced around a while, sat idle for months at a time and then miraculously moved on. Texas was, at the time, under Spanish rule, but the letter was written in French. It was a Hail Mary mailing. Truly an act of desperation. The fact that it arrived at all was a miracle within a miracle, and it saved the sender's life. François Simars de Bellisle was just 24 when he left France to come to America in 1719. He was headed for Louisiana on a small ship. As was often the case in those days, his captain overshot their destination. He missed Louisiana entirely and ended up near present-day Galveston where the ship ran aground off Bolivar Peninsula. But the captain thought they were relatively close to Ship Island near New Orleans, a little error of 300 miles. What Google Earth could have done for these early travelers! Bellisle and four other French officers took meager supplies — biscuits, guns, minimal ammunition, swords — and went ashore to determine their location and seek help to guide their ship to port. They slept well that first night and when they got up the next morning their ship was gone. They had been abandoned. They walked east and made it to what was likely the mouth of the Sabine River where they could go no further because of deep mud. They headed back the way they had come. Though they had some success finding oysters and killing small birds — they even killed a deer — they began, one by one, to succumb to starvation. Within two months, Bellisle had buried all of his friends. He was alone and hungry in this new land and, naturally, desperately depressed. Bellisle believed he was living his last days. He was on the west side of Galveston Bay, out of bullets and reduced to eating boiled grass and worms out of driftwood. Then, one clear morning he saw the first Native Americans he had seen since being stranded. They were Akokisa and his only hope for survival. The Akokisas greeted him by taking all of his goods and stripping him of his clothes, leaving him naked – a state he would remain in for over a year. The only good thing that happened that day is that they fed him. But he was enslaved, ordered about mercilessly, beaten regularly and used as a beast of burden. How ironic that his name Bellisle meant "beautiful island," but that is not what he found that day. They took him west with them toward the Brazos River to hunt buffalo. He had to walk, naked and barefoot, carrying their supplies. But he did record later that, despite his wretched condition, he couldn't help but marvel at the beautiful prairies they passed through for over 150 miles. He wrote, "This is the most beautiful country in the world. The earth is black. Grass grows there to a prodigal height, and in abundance, which is a certain sign that the earth is good." Upon returning to the bay, he realized that his situation was dire. He would die if he stayed. So he retrieved one of the few pieces of paper he had in his belongings and wrote a letter. He asked his hosts give it to the white chief they told him was rumored to live to the east. He had nothing to write with so he carved a crude pen out of wood and made ink out of charcoal and water. He wrote a letter begging for rescue from anyone who would might receive it. A couple of his tribe took the message east but never attempted to find the rumored white chief. They just passed along this strange artifact to other tribes as a curiosity. It went from tribe to tribe, perhaps traded for one thing or another, but all the while moved northeast. Then the miracle occurred. Members of the Hasinai Native Americans, which had close ties to the French, happened to see the letter and knew that it was something the French would like to see. So they took it to the commander of the French garrison at Natchitoches, Louisiana, a week's journey away. The commander, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, wrote a letter in return, and ordered the Hasinais to bring the castaway back, whether dead or alive. When Bellisle's rescuers reached the Akokisa camp, they gave Bellisle the letter that informed him that the Hasinais would escort him to Natchitoches. His captors didn't want to let him go, but they feared the Hasinais and so they relented. Bellisle said the final night in camp waiting to leave the next morning was the longest of his life. It still took him months to get to Natchitoches, but at least he was free. He had sent what was the land version of a message in a bottle, and it had caught the best currents and washed up on the perfect shore. His literacy, and luck, saved him. The source of this story comes mostly from Bellisle's memoirs, published in part by Henri Folmer in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Oct. 1940), pp. 204-231.
Over the past decade I've seen more breathtakingly beautiful photographs of Texas than I saw in all the decades before, combined. This is thanks to social media where many photographers share their exquisite work online daily. I've made it a point to befriend these great visual artists so I can enjoy Texas in all its resplendent glory from mountain to sea, from high plains to the tropics. I will share with you the names of some of my favorites so that you can see Texas through their gifted eyes. Now this is just MY list, work I've come to know somewhat at random. Many of your favorites I will no doubt miss, but perhaps you can add mine to your list of favorites, and you can add yours to mine at the end of this commentary. In no particular order, here we go. Wyman Meinzer is the official State Photographer of Texas. He was given this honorary title by the 1997 Texas Legislature at the request of Governor George W. Bush. They wanted to recognize his extraordinary body of work that captures the varied landscapes of Texas and the people who work the land. I love his titles: Between Heaven and Texas, Windmill Tales, and Horses to Ride, Cattle to Cut – among the more than 20 books he has published. They say he has "traveled to every corner of this great state... in search of the first and last rays of sunlight in its magnificent sweep across the Texas landscape." Find him at www.wymanmeinzer.com Jeff Lynch left his heart in West Texas. His photographs of the soft cotton clouds floating above the Davis Mountains on a summer's day, or his pics of the shadows of those clouds roaming across the vast vistas of West Texas, will make you fall in love with that region just as he has. See his work at Jeff Lynch Photography on Facebook and Instagram. Carol M. Highsmith is what I call a photographic philanthropist. She has donated her entire body of U.S. photographs (including hundreds of Texas photos) to an online collection viewable anytime for free at the Library of Congress website. You can search her Texas Lyda Hill collection with simple words like "longhorns," "cowboys," or "Big Tex." Her photographs are downloadable and royalty free. She is a visual documentarian. Her Texas work celebrates landscapes, cityscapes, small-town life, and the diverse cultures of the Lone Star State. Here is her web Library of Congress address: https://www.loc.gov/collections/carol-m-highsmith/about-this-collection/ My favorite coastal photographer is John Martell. He says, "Texas is a photographer's paradise." Every day, it seems, from his base of operations in Rockport, he posts an awe-inspiring photo of a sunrise or sunset over Aransas bay. He says, "Texas is a rich treasure trove for nature lovers. As a photographer I want to capture the essence of these jewels. That always seems to be about the light, which translates into sunrises and sunsets." Find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JohnMartellPhotography/ Tim McKenna is to me the consummate photographer of Big Bend. In fact, he was commissioned to provide all the photos for the 2018 Big Bend National Park calendar. He can make a cactus flower in the desert look as delicate as a Tyler rose. He puts you in the moment of being bathed in the pink hues of an Emory Peak sunrise or enjoying the soft grey light of the desert after a rain – so real, you'd swear you can smell the musky tones of the damp creosote bushes around you. His work assures you that the desert is a place of infinite life. When he was a young man he hunted with a rifle. Now, he hunts with a camera. You can find him here: https://www.facebook.com/tim.mckenna.31 Larry White loves trains and old cars and trucks and hill country wildflowers. His photographs of a freight train rumbling through ancient East Texas forests or old trucks sitting in forgotten fields will stir your heart in new ways. His photograph of white horses grazing silently at sunrise in a field of bluebonnets is one of his best. No one is better at photographing wildflowers than Larry White. I think he was born with a camera in his hand. You can find his work at https://www.facebook.com/larrywhitephotography/ Also, www.larrywhitephoto.com If the stately nature of the King of Beasts, or the grace and beauty of tigers peaks your interest, then David Pine's work will inspire you. His aim is to depict the essence of an animal in a still shot. "Still photography," he says, "is the art of capturing a fleeting moment that can express the gamut of emotions not otherwise seen. You want to capture the soul of a creature through its eyes." Many of his photos come from zoos and rescue zoos in Texas. https://www.facebook.com/DavidPinePhotography George McLemore is an incredibly artistic photographer of life in Texas (Texana), but most importantly to me – he has been the visual chronicler of my social circles for several decades now. For most of his life, he has preserved on film and online, the social gatherings and special events for all who have been in his orbit, and he has done it mostly for free. Thirty years ago we found his covert clicking unnecessary. But now, for many of us, we realize that we would have no record of that time if it weren't for him. And we are grateful for the treasures he shares with us often from his labyrinth of negatives and digital files. To all the McLemores of the world, I raise my Shiner Bock to them – those visionary souls who recognized the Kodak moments of our lives that we seemed blind to. www.mclemorephotography.com
The other day I was trying to pull out on U.S. Route 281, and the traffic was so steady that I had to wait about three minutes for an opening. As I was waiting, my father's voice came into my head and said, "Somebody left the gate open down there." Dad's been gone 30 years now, but those sorts of metaphors still live in my head, as they do for a lot of us Texans. We may have mostly moved from farms and ranches to cities, but our language is still peppered with these expressions of pastoral life. As T. K. Whipple, the literary historian pointed out, we live in a world our forefathers created, "but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, what they lived, we dream." You cannot have the influences of the frontier or country life disappear in just a generation or two. It hangs on in interesting ways, in our myths and in our language. One place that we can witness it with some vibrancy is in the farm and ranch expressions or metaphors that survive in our digital age. Here are twelve I've rounded up for you. "I wouldn't bet the ranch on it." It's used to infer the poor likelihood that a given investment or prediction will come true. "Well, yes, Congress might decide to work together for the greater good, but I wouldn't bet the ranch on it." "To mend fences." It means to make peace. "You might want to mend fences with Jayden. You're likely to need his friendship one day." "Dig in your heels." When cowboys were branding calves and roped one, they had to pull hard against them and were told to dig in their heels. Now, the phrase is used for any act of taking a tough stance. "We're diggin' in our heels on this contract." Similar to "sticking to our guns." "Take the bull by the horns" is a good one. Face your troubles head on. Yet a similar saying warns against careless assertiveness: "Mess with the bull and you get the horns." That expression was made particularly popular in classic films like The Breakfast Club and Some Kind of Wonderful. "Don't have a cow!" Bart Simpson made it world-famous. Of course, he added "man" at the end. It is about anti-empathy. I can't validate your over-reaction. The earliest known printed use of "don't have a cow," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was found in the Denton Record-Chronicle in 1959. The phrase appeared in quoting someone who said, "He'd 'have a cow' if he knew I watched 77 Sunset Strip." Proud it showed up first in Texas. "Till the cows come home." That means a long time, long time. It's almost as bad as waiting for "pigs to fly." "Until the cows come home," perhaps originated in the Scottish highlands. They let cows out to wander lush pastures in the spring and it would be a long time before they would make their way home. It also refers to cows coming home to be milked in the early morning hours. "Maverick" is well-known. It is used to brand someone as a non-conformist. It is named after Samuel Maverick, a Texan who allegedly didn't brand his cattle. That isn't the entire truth, but that is what many have come to believe, and so that version of the story has stuck. "All hat and no cattle" is one of my all-time favorites. I used it recently in a conversation with a teenager and he said he had never heard it before and didn't know what it meant. I explained that it was similar to "all bark and no bite." He didn't get that one either. I guess trying to teach ranch metaphors to a teenager is like "herding cats." In fairness, I didn't understand his saying that I seemed "salty" either. "Riding shotgun." This started as means of naming the guy who rode on the stagecoach next to the driver, generally holding the shotgun to ward off bandits. It's still being used 150 years later. Even modern teenagers still yell "I got shotgun!" as they run to the truck. "Hold your horses." Just wait a minute. Let's think about this calmly before we jump right in and regret it. "Hold your horses, Jim. I can't buy your truck until I talk to my wife, first." I also like that we still measure engine power in "horses" – 400 horsepower. "I'm on the fence about it." Taking that new job in the oil patch in Odessa? Not sure. Still on the fence about that. I guess the most popular metaphor of all from ranch culture is "BS," meaning "nonsense." It's difficult to accurately trace its origins and attempting to do so leads us into a thicket of art form itself. I used the word recently while giving a talk in the state Capitol building. I was asked afterward if I thought that was an appropriate term to use in such august surroundings. I said, "I imagine the expression has been used more than a few times here in the legislature, and probably, even more often, impressively illustrated."
At Christmas time each year I like to tell the story about a great gift given to Texas. My favorite Christmas stories of this kind concern seeds planted long ago that are still producing abundant harvests today. You may not know the name D.H. Snyder, but you will certainly recognize his influences on Texas history. Like many young men of his time, in the 1850s, he was already out and about making his mark in the world when he was just 22. He was hauling apples from Missouri and selling them in Texas. From apples, he went to trading horses and from horses, to cattle. He once walked 100 miles from Round Rock to San Antonio to buy horses. He had only $200 to spend. Someone asked why he didn't just buy a horse in Round Rock and ride to San Antonio and his answer was "more horses." The horse market was much cheaper in San Antonio and his money would go further. So he walked. His great grandson, Charles Snyder, told me that D.H.'s trading mantra was always this: "You make your profit when you buy, not when you sell." He drove cattle to Kansas, to Colorado, and was the first to drive cattle from Texas to Wyoming and Idaho. He was one of the first to drive cattle 90 miles from the Concho to the Pecos, without water in between. Beforehand, he rested the herd for a few days, watered them well, and even skipped slaughtering the calves (as was customary, because it was believed they slowed the herd). Then, he drove them all day and all night for 70 hours straight until he reached the Pecos. The calves did just fine. The mamas did better, too, having their babies with them. Sound familiar? Woodrow and Gus were inspired by cattlemen like Snyder and Goodnight to make a similar run in Lonesome Dove over 100 years later. Snyder had surprising rules for his drovers. They were these: You can't drink whiskey and work for us. You can't play cards and gamble and work for us. You can't curse and swear in our camps, or in our presence, and work for us. You don't usually think of cattle drives as having such rules, but D. H. Snyder was a devout Methodist. He ran a disciplined, virtuous camp. Sometimes he even brought a minister along to conduct Sunday services. He, his men and the cattle rested on Sundays. His method worked. All the ranchers knew that if you wanted your cattle delivered to market on the day promised, without losses, without fail, D.H. Snyder was your man. So where's the gift you ask? We're coming to it. Snyder got rich driving cattle and became a successful rancher himself, with hundreds of thousand of acres of land in his operations. He settled in Georgetown, along with his brother and business partner, John Wesley Snyder. D.H. gave land for the building of the First Methodist Church, which is still there. John gave land for the high school. They both endowed Southwestern University with multiple, generous gifts over the years, though neither went to college. D.H. served on the board for 27 years and gave the fledgling university the benefit of his business sense. He served as the treasurer for 22 years, free of charge, giving the arguably oldest university in Texas the solid financial footing it needed to become the world-class university it is today. His money went from cattle to chemistry and composition, from ranching to research. Charles Snyder, D.H.'s great-grandson, told me that D.H. lived to be 88. In his latter years, he lived in a modest home near the university. He became legally blind. But he lost his sight, not his vision. Not long before he died, someone asked D.H. if he regretted giving most of his money to the university, which forced him to live on a meager budget compared to the rich life he once enjoyed. He had no regrets at all. In fact, he said, "I see that investment every day as the students pass by the house on their way to class."
If I could have any wish I would choose to be a time-traveler. Some say time travel will be possible one day, and some say it is the stuff of fairy tales. So, I guess until Elon Musk invents that mythical machine, books will have to do. Books give us the next best thing. They can help us understand how people lived and thought and talked long ago, especially when the books were written by people who consciously sought to catalog such things in the time they lived. Frederick Law Olmsted left us such a book about his travels through Texas in the 1850s. It's called "A Journey Through Texas: Or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier." With his brother, he traveled several thousand miles around Texas, on horseback, chronicling his experiences for The New York Times – today, we'd call him a blogger. His book is a gem, an absolute treasure, a priceless time-sensitive ethnography. It is more than a snapshot; it is an intricate mural of Texas and Texans a decade after becoming a state, while the entire country headed toward civil war. Before I share a few of his observations, let me tell you who he was. He was a farmer and eventually he became the most famous landscape architect in America. He designed Central Park in New York and Niagara Falls State Park, as well as the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and the White House. A contemporary said of Olmsted, "He paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountainsides and ocean views." These achievements would come later but they give us an idea of his rare aesthetic sense and farmer practicality when he came to Texas. He arrived in Nacogdoches in January of 1853 and then meandered on horseback all over Texas. He explored the Piney Woods, the Hill Country, the Coastal Plains, Southwest Texas and even rode a ways into Mexico. Frederick Law Olmsted wrote often of the famous Texas northers because he was several times caught out in open country with sudden fierce winds and rapid drops in temperature. He wrote that a norther hit them on the prairie west of the Brazos. The wind kicked up mightily and the temperature dropped 12 degrees in 12 minutes, from 67 to 55. He wrote, "In five minutes, we had all got our overcoats on and were bending against [the wind] in our saddles." By 6 p.m. that evening it was 40 degrees; the next morning it was 25. Olmsted said he couldn't get his horse shoed that day because the blacksmith said he wouldn't work as long as the "damned norther lasted." The Bastrop paper wasn't published that day either because, the editor explained, the "printing office was on the north side of the house." Seems reasonable. When he arrived in Austin, population 3,000, Olmsted stayed at what was supposed to be the best hotel, but found it dirty and the food inedible. He was also dismayed that there was not one bookstore in town. Nice to see that 170 years later those shortcomings have been impressively remedied. He loved Neu-Branfels – loved with a capital L. The German communities and natural magnificence of the lands along the Guadalupe River were so impressive to him that he almost stayed in Texas. He was enchanted by the springtime wildflowers in the Hill Country and he fully embraced the German saying that "the sky is nearer in Texas." Riding out west to Eagle Pass, he killed an enormous six-foot rattlesnake. A man came by and told him he had just killed an even bigger one up the road a ways. Olmsted worried in the daytime that his horse would get bit, and at night he worried that a rattler would snuggle up with him in his bedroll. On this part of his journey he saw his first horny toads and so loved the little creatures that he shipped some back home to New York where he kept them as exotic pets for a couple of years. In San Antonio, it was the river he fell in love with. "We are so struck by its beauty," he wrote. "It is of a rich blue and pure as crystal, flowing rapidly but noiselessly over pebbles and between reedy banks." But it was still the Wild West. He wrote of the near weekly gunfights in the plaza. "As the actors are under ... excitement, their aim is not apt to be of the most careful and sure; consequently, it is, not seldom, the passers-by who suffer." Though Olmsted didn't arrive in the south as a staunch abolitionist, he saw the contrast between slave-based economies and those that relied on paid labor, and found the latter far more successful. He said that a monopoly on cotton and devotion to a one-crop economy left no room for the progress that only economic diversity could bring. He objected to slavery on moral grounds as well, but found that pro-slavery advocates responded best to arguments based on pragmatics rather than righteousness. Take a horseback ride through Texas with Olmsted. It's the best option in time-traveling now available.
How Moms Use The Legend Of La Llorona To Keep Their Kids In Line
By W. F. Strong La LLorona (the crying woman) is a Mexican legend that is at least 500 years old. It no doubt arrived in Texas with the earliest Mexican settlers and La Llorona has haunted our rivers, lakes and streams ever since, particularly in the border regions. There are dozens of versions. Here is one. La Llorona was a poor girl in a small village. She was extraordinarily beautiful with raven black hair and large almond eyes. One day when she was getting water from the town well, a handsome man on a fine horse rode up and asked her for a drink. She had never seen such a perfect man or felt so wonderfully nervous in the presence of one before. He felt the same way about her. They fell in love on the spot. He could not marry her, though, because she was a poor village girl and he was from a the richest, most prominent family in the region. But he could not live without her so he bought her a big home and showered with jewelry and gifts and gave her two children. He came to visit often and adored playing with their children. It was not perfect, but she was happy because she loved him so much. After a few years a period of time came when he did not visit at all. She was worried about him and did something she had never done. She went to the big city to visit his mansion to see what was wrong. When she arrived she quietly asked a servant if he was there and she said, "Oh, no, today he is getting married to a famous princess from Spain." La Llorona was so angry that she wanted to do something to hurt him. In that jealous rage, she went straight home and took their two children to the river and drowned them. When she regained her sanity she was plunged into such despair over what she had done that she died of grief right there on the river bank. As she attempted to enter the afterlife, an angel asked her where her children were. She said she didn't know. She was told she must find them before she could rest. So she was forced back to earth and condemned to wander rivers and lakes and streams looking for her children forever. If you go out near water at night you will sometimes hear her crying, "Mis hijos, mis hijos." My children. They say if she sounds near she is really far away, but if she sounds far away, she is very near you. Those who've seen her say that she wears a moldy shroud and has jet black hair, but no nose and no mouth, only luminous violet eyes that are horrifyingly red-streaked from her eternal crying. If you see her thrashing around the middle of a creek or river, don't go in to try to save her because she will drown you. You should also never let your children stay out late near a river or creek or lake – or even a backyard swimming pool because La Llorona may think they are her children and steal them away from you forever. So La Llorona is a legend, a cautionary tale and the boogie man (coo-cooey) all in one. Particularly Hispanic mom's have used her to enforce good behavior for centuries. "Come inside now or La Llorona will get you." "You come straight home from David's house. Don't wander. La Llorona is always looking for lost children." And some even say that La Llorona makes children respect their mothers. She has appeared to children who have left their homes angrily, saying bad things to their mothers as they've left. La Llorona finds them walking in the dark and says, "I'll let you go this time, but go back to your mother and be good to her." Excellent advice for Halloween and all the other days of the year. I'm W. F. Strong. These are stories from Texas, via Mexico. Some of them, are true.
How Moms Use The Legend Of La Llorona To Keep Their Kids In Line
The highest natural point in Texas is Guadalupe Peak at 8,751 feet. The tallest building is the JPMorgan Chase Tower at 1,002 feet. But that is not the tallest manmade structure in Texas. In fact, it's only half as tall as the tallest structure in Texas, the Liberman Broadcast Tower in Era, which is 2,000 feet – one third of a mile high; 200 stories. And there are brave workers who climb such towers as part of their daily work: Imagine how hard it is to walk up 200 flights of stairs. Now imagine climbing a ladder – straight up, in oppressive heat and strong winds. One such man who climbs these towers is Jesús, last name omitted at his request. I met Jesús at random this summer. I just fell into a conversation with him and became fascinated by his stories about climbing the tallest structures in Texas. They could be even taller, but the FAA limits them to 2,000 feet for the safety of airplanes. Jesús told me that the 2,000-foot towers, of which there are several in Texas, are called "two-screamers" because you can get in two long screams before arriving at your destination. Gallows humor seems common among "tower dogs," as some climbers refer to themselves, just as it is among other dangerous professions like test pilots and bomb squads. In fact, in 2012 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that tower-climbing was the most dangerous profession in America – 10 times more dangerous than construction jobs. I asked Jesús if the towers swayed at the top. He said some have a minor sway of maybe 2 to 3 feet or so, but on the whole, they're quite stable. I said that "minor" sway he referred to would be a major problem for me if I were up there. He said, "You know what I feel when I'm up a tower like that?" I said, "An urgent need to get down?" "No," he said. "I feel privileged. If I'm on a tower on top of a Houston skyscraper, I think about how privileged I am to see Houston as few people ever will. When I've been on the Liverpool radio tower overlooking Chocolate Bayou and the Gulf beyond, I've thought about seeing Texas as only a privileged few ever have. And once on a tower near San Jacinto, I was higher than the monument but could see it against the backdrop of the bay, and I felt privileged to see it that way." I was moved by Jesús' unexpected perspective. I expected comments about excitement and thrills and the love of an outdoor life. I didn't expect reverence. I said, "Well, I guess people do see those sights from planes sometimes." He said, "Not the same. They're moving. I'm still and it's quiet, except for wind." He later sent me something he wrote in his journal after climbing the Liverpool tower, south of Houston: "The morning sun, mild and languid, hovered a full eight fingers above the horizon. A large bird – an osprey – dove into the molten sphere effortlessly and emerged on the other side where the cool blue sky rounded the edges of the Texas sun. To the southeast, the waters of Chocolate Bay spilled inland from the horizon. The Gulf winds buffeted me on the tower, though the woods nearly 1,200 feet below – an amalgam of oaks, cedars and other coastal brush – remained largely unaffected. The air felt moist and heavy upon my skin. It rushed in from the Gulf tinged with a subtle saltiness, weary from its long journey across the open waters to reach the Texas shore. But perhaps the saltiness was just the sweat on my lips." I've found that those people who live close to the soil and within the earth's elements have the greatest connection to its beauties. The cowboys, the tower- climbers, the fishermen, the miners – they often see and feel deeply what we office-dwellers miss. Jesús told me that climbing the towers is only part of the danger; there are also huge yellow jackets and bees' nests. One must quietly pass by them; nowhere to run, after all. And then the bird poop that accumulates on the ladder, when wet, is slippery as ice, and when dry, kicks up a disgusting dust. Angry mama birds will dive bomb you. You also have to watch out for your fellow climbers accidentally dropping tools. A hammer dropped 200 feet above you moves at well over 100 miles an hour – hard hats are a must. And then there's lightning. "If you hear thunder," he said, "get off the tower." I asked him what question he was most asked and he said, "Like astronauts, we're asked most often about how we go to the bathroom. Believe it or not, OSHA has a procedure for that. We refer to it as a 'golden shower from the tower.' You must warn others below to shelter in place." I'm glad Jesús and his buddies are up on those towers keeping people like me on the air. If it weren't for him and the thousands of courageous souls like him, you wouldn't be hearing these words right now. Gracias por todo, Jesús. Mucho cuidado. Be careful up there.
Texans Have A Funny Relationship With The Letter 'R'
Texas Monthly once described the joke I'm about to tell you as THE TEXAS JOKE because of its staying power over many decades: A married couple from out of state were driving across Texas and saw a sign that said "Mexia 22 miles." They got into a bit of an argument over how to say the name of the town. He said it was likely "Mex-ee-ah" and she thought it was pronounced more like the country "Meh-ee-co" and would thus be "Meh-hee-ah." The argument persisted and he said, "We can't settle this. Tell you what. First place we come to in town we'll pull over and ask them." So they did. They pulled in at the first place and went up the girl at the counter and he said, "Can you tell us how to say the name of this place? And say it slow so we can hear it clearly." The girl thought the request was crazy but she leaned forward and said, "Day-ree-queeeen." That's an old joke, I know, but I use it as a segue to get to where I'm going. Of course nobody says "Meh-hee-ah" or "Mex-ee-ah." "Muh-hay-ah" is common but so is "Muh-hair." That's right, many people around those parts call it "Muh-hair." Don't know why. There's no "r" in the word, but in Texas there's something about an "r" that we adore. We do this to Refugio, too. Again, there is no second "R" in Refugio. It's a Spanish word, Refugio, meaning refuge, but we find it dialectically comfortable to exchange the "g" for an "r." There's a well known and much traveled street in Houston that everyone pronounces as "Kirk-in-doll." There is no "r" in the word at all. We could send in crack troops on a search and rescue mission and they'd never find an "r". We just throw one in there for the hell of it, I guess. And if we are not adding an "r" we simply move it to where it's more convenient for us. In the Hill Country, it is a river named the Pedernales River. Again a Spanish word, Pedernales. It means flints. We could just anglicize it to Pedernales but we find that "r'' to be inconveniently located so we move it up front where we can keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn't get away from us. We say, "Perdenales." Go on down south of Refugio about 100 miles you will come to Riviera. Well, that's the way it ought to be pronounced because it is spelled just like the Riviera in France, for which it was named — perhaps just an attempt at good marketing. True, it has a few million less people, no rivers, no film festival and no world class beaches. But it's not pronounced the same either. It is pronounced "Ra-veer-ah." So the "r" is still there but we get rid of that annoying detour caused by the unwanted "i" and replace it with an "e" to compliment that other "e" – to streamline our way to the "r." Much better. Otherwise we might sound French. It's a confusing adjustment because mostly we Texans have never met a diphthong we didn't like, but in this case we seem in a hurry to get to the "r" so we straighten out the approach. Though not a place, we do something similar with "Brahmer." It's Brahman, of course, technically, but we like the aesthetics of the word better if we exchange the "n" for an "r": "That's a beautiful Brahmer bull you got there." And we must include "Whataburger," too, often pronounced "Water-burger." Gotta get in the extra "r". And many of us do it with prostate, saying prostrate cancer instead of prostate cancer. Extra "r" slipped in. I think that "r" is borrowed from the notion of lying prostrate. Yes, something about an "r." We put 'em where they're not. We move them within the word. We streamline our way to them and make exchanges that better suit our Texas style, irregardless (there's another one) of what may be thought of as formally proper.
Texans Have A Funny Relationship With The Letter 'R'
About a month ago, my son went off to college with my Jeep, and I needed to get another vehicle. I had been truckless for a few years – a rare condition in my life – and I decided I wanted to fix that right away. For a long time, I had wanted a King Ranch Edition Ford pickup, with those fine leather seats, carrying the classic brand of the ranch I hunted on as boy. So now, I had the chance – and the reason – to buy one. With two kids in college, it was no time to splurge on a new one, but I thought I might find a previously-owned truck that would satisfy my longing. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to search for just what I wanted: a one-owner vehicle in near-mint condition being sold by an owner who had elaborate maintenance records and a pristine Carfax report. I found what I was looking for in San Antonio, 300 miles from where I live down in the Valley. So I contacted the owner and we made a gentleman's agreement as to price over the phone, and I headed up to look at it. I loved it – beautiful truck, dark brown with tan trim. Meticulously maintained. I said, "Let's do it." So, he pulled out the title to begin the paperwork and I was surprised to see that his name was William B. Travis. I said, "I guess you know, you're kind of famous." He said, "Yes, I do have a famous name. And I have the whole name, too. I'm William Barrett Travis and I'm also a descendant." I was astounded by the coincidence. I thought, "Here I am, a specialist in Texas lore and legend, about to buy a King Ranch pickup from a descendant of the commander of the Alamo, and he still lives in San Antonio. How cool is that?" In the favorite word of my teenage son, "Awesome!" We finished up the paperwork and payment, and he walked me out and gave me a detailed tour of all the unique features of the truck and directions on how to get back to the expressway to head home. I could tell he was a little sad to let go of the pickup. They'd had many good years together. I said, "I promise I'll take good care of her." So, I drove my new truck (new to me, anyway) back to the Valley. It was good to be riding high in the saddle once more, driving into a blustery coastal wind without breaking a sweat. In fact, I drove my King Ranch Edition pickup with its Alamo lineage, back through the actual King Ranch, while eating a Whataburger and listening to Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again." I have just have one thing to say: "Out-Texas Me That!" The only thing that would have made it better is if a Southwest Airlines jet had done a flyby at 200 feet and given me a wing salute.
They other day I was looking over a list of those who died at the Alamo. The one thing that struck me about the list was that the men who gave their lives there were, collectively, incredibly young. I saw John Wayne's film, "The Alamo," when I was a kid and for years I had in my mind that the men who fought there were mostly in their 40s and 50s. Legends like Crockett and Bowie who dominated the film, and dominated the actual siege, too, were rightfully played by actors who were about their age. Crockett was 50 in his last days at the Alamo and John Wayne was 52 when he played him. Bowie was 39 and Richard Widmark was 46. And many of the other actors who surrounded them on screen were also over 40. But the reality was something quite different. Well over half of the defenders of the Alamo were under 30. Fourteen were teenagers. 14! Two 16-year-olds died for Texas' liberty there. The typical Alamo fighter was 26 years old, which was the age of their commander. That's right, William Barret Travis was just 26 years old and the sole commander of the Alamo, at least in the last days. Bowie was originally a co-commander but he was so very sick – bedridden from typhoid or pneumonia – and that left Travis fully in charge. Eighty percent of the men at the Alamo were 34 and under. Today we would consider folks their age millennials. And the gift they gave was all the more precious because they knew in the last days, when Santa Anna raised the pirate flag, that no surrender would be accepted. They had to win or die. And as they looked across the prairie at a force ten times their size, they knew these were likely their last days. They could have left. There were chances to get out under the cover of darkness. But they stayed, knowing that they were giving up not just their lives, but all the long years that generally awaited young men. There were even men from Gonzales who actually fought through the Mexican lines to join their brothers in arms in the Alamo. Astonishing. And the Alamo men came from all over. Numbers can be tricky with this history, but here's what we know based on the Alamo's official website, 32 were from Tennessee, 15 each came from Pennsylvania and Virginia, and 14 were from Kentucky. Eight were Hispanic -– born in Mexican Texas. And Europe was involved, too: ten came from England, ten from Ireland, four from Scotland, two from Germany. Santa Anna was enraged that the Texans were rebelling. His plan was to launch a massive military campaign to crush the rebellion and make the Texans pay for it. I'm not making this up. The great historian T. R. Fehrenbach pointed out that Santa Anna planned to make the Texans pay for the military operation they caused by taking all of their lands and giving it to his soldiers and other Santanistas. Meanwhile, William Barret Travis, though very young, wrote the most famous letters of the revolution. One letter, addressed 'To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World," asked for immediate reinforcements. He specified that his situation was dire. If they were not victorious, they would all be "put to the sword." But he vowed he would "never surrender or retreat." The letter was signed, "Victory or Death." Another that Travis wrote to the Texas government, which was more significant for what it prophesied, said this: "the victory will cost the enemy so dear, that it will be worse for him than a defeat." And indeed, Santa Anna lost a third of his troops, about 600, which greatly demoralized the rest. This was followed by a forced march of 300 miles to San Jacinto, which so exhausted Mexican soldiers that they were actually caught napping when General Sam Houston attacked. The Texans' victory over Santa Anna after the fall of the Alamo and Goliad was so unlikely that it was similar to the odds of a baseball game in which the home team is down 29 runs to nothing. It's the bottom of the 9th. Two outs. It's a full count. Houston at bat. Against those kinds of odds, the Texans rallied and crushed Santa Anna's forces so decisively that it was all over in 18 minutes. Some say ten. Without the men at the Alamo softening up, demoralizing and exhausting Santa Anna's forces, it is unlikely that Houston's army would have enjoyed such a resounding victory at San Jacinto. That is why we should always "Remember the Alamo," and the mostly very young men who gave their lives for Texas' freedom.
By W. F. Strong Tom Hanks in the movie "Cast Away" was stranded all alone on a deserted pacific island. He was the lone survivor of a plane crash. The seriousness of his situation sunk in as he did the math in his head. He explained radial geometry to Wilson (his Volleyball friend) as he illustrated their predicament on a stone wall. He concluded, impressively, that since they went 400 miles out of their way to circumvent the storm the search area would be (400 miles squared x pi) 500,000 square miles. And he thought a moment and added, dejectedly, "it's twice the size of Texas!" Texas is often used as a unit of measure like that – in movies and in the real world. Exactly 30 years ago this week, Texas Congressman Mickey Leland's plane disappeared over Ethiopia. It took a week for a massive search to find the crash site. During that week people around the world couldn't believe that they couldn't find the plane, despite dozens of aircraft looking for it. A frustrated Search Commander explained to the media, "We are looking for a needle in a haystack. The haystack is half the size of Texas." More recently many a news report warned about the growing environmental disaster of a floating island of plastic trash out in the Pacific, which is twice the size of Texas. And this is not just for U.S. consumption. Worldwide it seems to be a comparison that provides clarity for people because most people around the world know at least one thing about Texas – it's BIG. Even Alaska uses Texas to explain its size. "We're more than twice the size of Texas," they say. Of course one of those Texases is mostly snow and ice. Just kidding Alaska. As far as states go, we're brothers. BFFs. People have a good deal of fun on the Internet laying Texas over other countries and regions of the world. It's bigger than Spain, bigger than France, bigger than Germany, twice the size of England and bigger than Japan. Texas was even used as a unit of measure in relation to Pluto. When Pluto was kicked out of the Solar System (as a planet anyway) and demoted to a dwarf planet, there were people who said, as justification, "It's smaller than Texas!" That was truly an exaggeration. As the Austin American-Statesman pointed out in 2015, Pluto is has almost twice the diameter of Texas, if you use the state's widest point, which is north to south, and Pluto is 24 times larger than Texas by land area. Still, interesting that was used as a unit of measure even way there in space, or 4.6 billion Texases away. Even we Texans like to use Texas distances to illustrate things and amuse ourselves. We enjoy noting that El Paso is closer to the Pacific Ocean beaches of San Diego than it is to Beaumont. Brownsville is closer to Mexico City than it is to Dallas. Reminds me that a friend from Chicago once had a conference in El Paso to attend. He decided to take that chance to get a good look at Texas. He flew into Dallas, rented a car and enthusiastically started driving to El Paso. He said I knew it would be long drive," but after driving about 3 hours I got to Abilene and was immediately depressed by the sign I saw there: El Paso 444 miles." We Texans know that the first day of a driving vacation to anyplace outside of Texas will be devoted to getting out of Texas. Maybe our version of the Chinese saying should be, "A journey of a 1000 miles begins with a long drive to the border." We do have fun finding all the ways that border cities are closer to Chicago or Denver or Nashville than they are to other parts of the state, which is why we measure distance in hours more often than miles. And most Texans think we are closer to heaven than most anywhere else – we're God's Country, they say. This time of year, though, it often feels like we are closer to – Well I'm out of time. Gotta run. I'm W.F. Strong and these are stories from Texas. Some of them are true.
The Armadillo's Texas Roots Reach Back To Ancient Times
On these warm summer nights, I see them often as I drive home on FM 803. They sometimes stop, frozen for a few seconds, their eyes reflecting my headlights in an eerie red – and then they dash off into giant clumps of prickly pear, where predators can't follow. The Spaniards named them armadillos – "the little armored ones." It was a term of affection and all who have lived in this land called Texas ever since have been fond of them. To me, they are the small animal version of an armored-up Humvee. And they are truly armored. A man in east Texas shot one with a .38 caliber pistol and the bullet ricocheted off the armadillo's thick plating and hit the man in the face. He recovered. The armadillo could not be found. They are impressive survivors. In fact, in the land before Texas, four million years ago, their distant relatives roamed the earth. The original armadillos, called glyptodons, reached a weight of two tons, about the size of a white rhino. Plus, they had club-like spiky tails. If they were running around Texas today, we wouldn't have roadkill, we'd have car kill. We'd call them armadigantes – armored giants. We'd need thick steel fences for them, probably electrified like those in the original Jurassic Park movie. Not sure you'd want to go home with the armadillo in such circumstances. Speaking of Jurassic Park, scientists, perhaps inspired by a scene from that film, compared the fossil remains of ancient glyptodons, to our modern armadillos. In 2016, two geneticists analyzed the ancient DNA of a glyptodon, comparing it with that of modern armadillos and found evidence that they are directly related. Why the original was so large or why its descendants became miniaturized is an unsolved mystery. In Texas, the nine-banded armadillo is the most common, and down in South America they have what we now call "giant armadillos." But they're only six feet long if you include the tail, and weigh 70 pounds. Still, if I saw one of those around here, I think I would go the other way. At the other end of the scale is the fairy armadillo, also from South America. It is only about four inches long and pink. You could hold it in the palm of your hand. Though our Texas armadillo can't roll into a perfect ball, like the Brazilian three-banded one, it does have this special ability: the females give birth to four identical quadruplets every time, producing as many as 16 pups in a lifetime. Bet they're glad they don't have to send them all to college. The Texas armadillo – the nine-banded one – has certainly worked its way into iconic status here. There are armadillo t-shirts, tattoos galore, armadillo lamps (no armadillos hurt in the making of the lamps), armadillo campers and trailers and armadillo restaurants that don't serve armadillo. However, during the Great Depression, an era many blamed on President Herbert Hoover, food was scarce, and many people in Texas hunted and ate armadillos, calling them "poor man's pork" or "Hoover hogs." Later on, people blamed leprosy in Texas on armadillo meat. No doubt, the best-known armadillo business, open from 1970-1980, was the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. The nightclub was named after the armadillo in order to commemorate the fact that it was located in the old National Guard Armory. Though long out of business, the Armadillo World Headquarters helped lay the foundation for the world-class live music scene that thrives in Austin today. To properly honor all the positive influences of the armadillo's mystique in Texas, the 1995 legislature declared the nine-banded armadillo the official State Small Mammal of Texas. The law reads in part: WHEREAS: ...The armadillo, is a hardy, pioneering creature that chose to begin migrating here at about the time that Texas became a state; and WHEREAS: The armadillo possesses many remarkable and unique traits, some of which parallel the attributes that distinguish a true Texan, such as a deep respect and need for the land, the ability to change and adapt, and a fierce undying love for freedom; and; WHEREAS: [The armadillo is] a proud and indomitable as the state from which it hails. RESOLVED: That the 74th Legislature of the State of Texas hereby . . . designate(s) the armadillo as the official Small State Mammal of Texas. The Texas Longhorn was made the Official Large State Mammal in the same legislation. And then we also have the unofficial honoring of the little armored ones in a famous song written by Gary P. Nunn. So the Armadillo is distinguished by legislation, protected by law, and immortalized in song. Is Texas a great country or what?
The Armadillo's Texas Roots Reach Back To Ancient Times
Pink Cadillacs And Lucky 13: How Mary Kay Ash Built A Billion-Dollar Business
We have had dozens of rags-to-riches stories in Texas. These Horatio Algers had hardscrabble beginnings but built fortunes worth hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars. But unfortunately – at this point, anyway – most of them have been male. So the women who did it were all the more impressive because they had headwinds to fight that others didn't. They had higher mountains to climb. Makes me think of Ann Richards' famous line: "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels." Mary Kay Ash was one of those women. Mary Kay already had a highly successful career with Stanley Home Products before beginning her empire, but that success was not recognized or rewarded. Twice, she was passed over for promotions in favor of men she had trained. Salt in the wound for sure. So she retired early, at 45, and went home to write an advice book for women in business on how to survive in a world of men. About halfway through that book she had a eureka moment. She realized that she had written a remarkable business plan. So with her husband and $5,000 in savings, she decided to launch Beauty by Mary Kay. Sadly, just a month before the grand opening, her husband, George Hallenbeck, died. It was then that most all the men in her life – banker, minister, relatives – told her that she should forget about the business idea. Too risky. But she said no. She believed in her concept. It would work. So on Friday the 13th – September 1963 – with the help of her son Richard, she opened Mary Kay Cosmetics in Dallas. From that day on, Mary Kay considered 13 her lucky number. Now that's staring down superstition. The Mary Kay World Headquarters is 13 stories tall. It has 13 elevators and Mary Kay's office is on the 13th floor, where it remains as she left it when she passed away in 2001. Mary Kay built a company of, by, and for women. She wanted to create a business that would enrich women and help them achieve genuine success, to reap unlimited rewards, and to enjoy meaningful recognition for their excellence. Many women of her time, she said, "had not had any applause since they graduated from high school or college." She would change that. Meaningful recognition was not an "atta girl" on the last line of a corporate memo. She wanted women to feel the joy of being recognized and celebrated. She wanted them to have their own businesses, to be independent consultants. And when they were successful, they would be rewarded with loud ovations at corporate conventions, diamond-studded tennis bracelets, all expense paid trips to Paris where they'd stay at the Ritz and be chauffeured to the Louvre, and at home they would drive their own shiny pink Cadillacs. And if they were in Germany, it would be a pink Mercedes. I made a pitch for Pink Pickup Trucks or Pink Suburbans for the Texas Consultants. They're thinking about it, but I doubt seriously. May Kay believed that the best way to empower women was to enrich them. But she wasn't talking only about money; she meant emotionally and spiritually as well. Anne Crews, who is a Mary Kay Vice President for public affairs and a board member of the Mary Kay Foundation, told me that when you would sit and talk with Mary Kay, you were the only person she saw. She looked you straight in the eye. It didn't matter what was going on around her. She never talked to you from behind her desk, but would sit with you on her couch. She was warm and personable and genuine, seeing in you what you perhaps did not see in yourself. Her central belief was that there were unlimited opportunities to reach inward and achieve more. That is why her corporate symbol was the bumblebee. "The bumblebee is aerodynamically incapable of flight," she often observed, "but someone forgot to tell the the bumblebee." This fit with her personal prime directive: "to help women see how great they really were." Mary Kay had perhaps an unusual mission statement, for a corporation. It was quite simply Matthew 7:12 – the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." She believed that if everyone followed that rule, from top to bottom, in and outside the company, success would certainly follow. She frequently told the Independent beauty consultants to put that rule to work every day with their clients. So what started small in Dallas, Texas, grew bigger than Dallas. Bigger than Texas. It grew all over the world to over 3 million independent beauty consultants in Russia, China, Norway, Peru – nearly 40 countries – doing over $3.5 billion dollars of business a year. What started small in Texas changed the world. That is why Mary Kay Ash was chosen by Baylor University as the Greatest Female Entrepreneur in U. S. History. And her work for women has continued since her passing. She established the Mary Kay Foundation in 1996 to work on finding cures for cancers affecting women. The mission, says Anne Crews, has since expanded to prevent violence against women and children. Since 2000, the Mary Kay Foundation has made gifts of nearly $50 million to domestic violence shelters across America, including dozens in Texas. Mary Kay said that she wanted to live her life so that in the end, people would say "she cared." Given the phenomenal number of women whose lives she's enriched, I don't know how there would be any other conclusion.
Pink Cadillacs And Lucky 13: How Mary Kay Ash Built A Billion-Dollar Business
Like millions of his fans, I was stunned to learn that Anthony Bourdain had left us so soon last week. I was sad because he had such a genius for expressing his brilliance: and, I believe, had so much more to teach. I've spent half my life trying to teach students at the university to embrace new cultures with respect and enthusiasm. Compared to Anthony Bourdain, however, I've been a mere theorist in this struggle. I was an analyst; he was in the trenches. He was so refreshingly eloquent in teaching people to bury the tourist within them, suppress their ethnocentrism and release the traveler. He taught us that it wasn't enough to walk in another man's shoes. You must dine at his table, learn his rituals. When you embrace another man's food, you embrace his culture. He particularly loved Mexican food and culture. Having lived most of my life in the Hispanic world, he and I shared that love, as do most Texans. To honor him, I will read part of his poignant essay on Mexican cuisine: "Under the Volcano." It starts like this: Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people – we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. "If I'm an advocate for anything," says Bourdain, "It's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food. It's a plus for everybody." This has been a tribute to Anthony Bourdain, using his own words. Catch up with you one day Tony, in Parts Unknown.
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.