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Texas Standard » Stories from Texas
5 minutes | Jun 2, 2021
It’s June. Watermelon season. All my life, June has meant watermelon season and I don’t mean it’s just the time of year to eat them. As a kid, it also meant a time to work, and work hard, from can’t-see-in-the-morning to can’t-see-at-night, for no more than a little over a dollar an hour to get the melons out of the fields. So every June, I can’t help but drive by the fields and nostalgically marvel at the stamina we once enjoyed. Now in our sixties, my friends from those days often hypothetically wonder how long we think we could last in those fields today. The general belief is about thirty minutes… providing the ambulance got there on time. In my little town, as was true for many ag towns across Texas, we thought of watermelons as our fourth sport. The fall started with football and then we had basketball and baseball, and then, watermelons. We thought we should have been able to letter in watermelons. For those who played football, pitching melons half the summer was ideal conditioning. There were three kinds – grays, stripes and black diamonds. The grays were kind of like footballs – a little heavier of course. The stripes were enormous – and averaged 35 pounds or more. The black diamonds were the most despised because they were heavy and round like a medicine ball. Hard to pitch and hard to catch. The best thing about watermelon season was being able, when tired, to cut open a beautiful melon in the field and to eat just the cool, sweet heart of it, and move on. Nature’s Gatorade. There was a hierarchy in the fields. You’d start out as a pitcher, making a dollar, twenty-five an hour, at least that was the going rate in the late 1960s. You would work with a crew of four or five and take a large trailer, generally pulled by a tractor, out into the fields to load with melons. The crew would fan out and then, like a bucket brigade, toss the cut melons in their path to the next guy in line and he’d pitch it to the next guy who’d throw it up to the man in the trailer. You didn’t want to be the man working by the trailer because you had to handle every melon and lift it up over your head for the guy in the trailer to set it down with reasonable care so as not to break it open. The best job was to be either the man in the trailer or the outside man who handled the least number of melons, only those in his path. Yet it didn’t matter which job was yours, it was still brutal work. You worked in the giant sauna of the Texas summer, often in 100 degrees with no wind and stifling humidity. But it was about the only work you could get at 13 or 14, so you gladly did it and when you got your 80 dollars at the end of the week, you felt rich if not sunburnt and tired. And you longed for the day you could move up to cutter or stacker. Being a cutter was a good job because you didn’t pitch anymore. You went down the rows and identified, by sight, the melons that were ripe and ready to harvest and the proper weight for the store wanting them (H-E-B for instance – grays 18-to-24 pounds). You would cut them from the vine and stand on them on end for the pitchers to come along later and get them. The only downside was you were the first to come upon the rare rattler hidden in the vines. For this job you made $3.00 an hour. Double the pay. Knowledge is power. The final and best job in the field was stacker. You might get to be stacker by your third or fourth season, when you are 17 or so. You’d work inside the big 18-wheeler trailers and stack the melons “to ride.” The little trailers, or pickup trucks would come in from the fields and the line would form to pitch the melons to you inside the trailer. Stacking was an art form. Taking into account the weight and shape of the melons you’d stack them into tiers about 8 or 9 rows high, nice and tight, so they wouldn’t shift and break on the long ride north. The best stackers would start the season in the Rio Grande Valley and follow harvest north all the way up into the Panhandle where there would be a late summer and fall harvest. They’d make 25 dollars per 18 wheeler. Serious money, then. The greatest thing about those years and that work, at least for many men (and some women) who worked in those fields, is that they say it taught them a work ethic that has never deserted them.
5 minutes | May 19, 2021
The Story of C.H. Guenther
Carl Hilmar Guenther left Germany for America when he was 22. The year was 1846. He left without telling his parents he was going for fear they’d try to stop him. Young Guenther sailed for America because he thought his future was limited in Germany. He wrote that he “felt hemmed in,” that there was little freedom and nothing was happening. America, with it’s promise of infinite opportunities called to him. “If I cannot see the world in my youth,”he told his parents, “then life won’t mean much to me.” Upon his arrival in New York, he worked briefly as a laborer and then went on to Wisconsin where he worked in farming and saw mills. The game changer came when he was able to buy a set of carpenter’s tools for $30. With those tools he was no longer a laborer. He owned a business. Guenther then headed south to Mississippi, where he built houses and barns and cabinets, but he didn’t much care for the plantation society he found there. After about four years in the U.S., he thought he might go back to Germany, but first, he wanted to see the place he’d heard so much about: Texas. In San Antonio, he learned about the German community of Fredericksburg and went there to discover they needed a mill to process the local grain into flour. He had learned the milling trade from his father back in Germany, so he set about building a mill on Live Oak Creek. After borrowing money from his father to buy 150 acres of land, Guenther hired local men on promissory notes guaranteeing future payment for their helping him build a dam, a water wheel and a mill. Guenther was so honest and reliable that his notes were used in the area as a trustworthy currency. He married, had children and, because of the success of his mill, they quickly became one of the wealthiest families in Fredericksburg. After a flood destroyed his dam and damaged his mill, he rebuilt it and thought he should build another one in San Antonio because the city would soon have a population of 10,000 people. It was 1859 and the little city was already a bustling, promising market. Also, the San Antonio River was a more reliable water source. With the help of Alsatian immigrants from nearby Castroville, Guenther built his new mill. He paid for their labor, in part, with flour futures – the guarantee of future product they’d need. Guenther wrote to his mother that San Antonio was about one third Mexican, one third German, and one third Anglo. His son, he noted, spoke Spanish, English, and German, sometimes all in the same sentence. The mill Guenther built in 1859 is still there in the same spot, much updated, of course. It is now a giant international corporation: Pioneer Flour Mills, doing business as C. H. Gunther & Son, is one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in Texas. You can go there today and tour Pioneer Mills and the original Guenther House, now an exquisite museum and restaurant In 1859, the only mechanical element was the water wheel turning the millstones. Today, the plant is computerized and has robots working collaboratively with people to make flour and flour-based products, like fine gravies, for restaurants and bakeries. Pioneer makes pancake mix for Whataburger and the Whataburger pancake mix is sold at H-E-B, alongside their own Pioneer pancake mix and Pioneer flour. You may also be familiar with the White Wings (La Paloma) tortilla mix. That’s also made by Pioneer Flour. A subsidiary provides the McGriddle buns to McDonalds. If you’re from Texas, you’ve certainly tasted their products. Their reach is impressive. A European subsidiary even sells its breads in Germany where Guenther came from several generations ago. How cool is that? That’s the entrepreneurial cycle of life. From Saxony to San Antonio and back to Saxony.
7 minutes | Apr 21, 2021
Don Pedrito: Healer of Los Olmos
My friend of many years, Tony Zavaleta, told me the following story: He said, “There was once a married couple who lived in Rio Grande City back in the late 1800s. They had tried for some time to have a baby, but had had no luck. They went to see doctors and followed their advice, but still, God had not seen fit to bless them with a baby. So they decided that they would go to see Don Pedrito the ‘curandero’ – a healer – who lived near Falfurrias. They had been told that he could work miracles. It was a three-day journey by wagon, but they knew it would be worth going because Don Pedrito would certainly give them a ‘receta,’ a ritual to follow that would give them a baby. When the couple was a half a mile of Don Pedrito’s home, a boy came running to them and stopped their wagon. He said, ‘Don Pedrito said to turn around and go home. She is already pregnant.’ The young couple was shocked, but they did as Don Pedrito commanded. They turned around and went home, never doubting his word. Eight months later they had a gorgeous and healthy baby boy.” My friend Tony paused for a moment and said, “And that baby boy was my grandfather.” I’m connected to Don Pedrito as well, but not through my ancestry. I grew up only a few miles from his shrine, which still exists to this day. I walked by it many times in my teenage years and went into the shrine’s little room, hot from dozens of prayer candles that always burned there. At 15, I was astounded that there were faded and glossy new photographs from all over the United States and Mexico, leaning against the candles, asking for cures. Don Pedrito had died fifty years before, in 1907, and yet his fame as a healer not only endured, it thrived. People from far away made “promesas” and asked for his blessings because they had faith in his potential to still deliver cures. He was a much loved folk saint, and remains so to this day. Right now you can walk into any H-E-B store in much of Texas and buy a Don Pedro prayer candle. (In fact, you can even order it from H-E-B online.) Don Pedrito never took credit for cures. He always said that he didn’t cure anybody. He was only God’s intermediary. He rejected worship. If someone tried to kneel he would tell them to get up. Don Pedrito insisted that God was the one doing the healing. Don Pedrito only provided the “receta,” the prescription, which he said was provided by divine inspiration. Lest you think he was a con man, using Jesus to rob people, quite the opposite was true. He was Christ-like in that he never charged for his healing. People would give him money, and he would often refuse it, saying “you need that to get back home,” or “you should give that back to the man who loaned it to you.” If he did accept money, he would often use it to buy food for the many people who camped, sometimes by the hundreds, at Los Olmos Creek, waiting to see him. As one man said of him, “What he accepted with one hand, he gave with the other.” Proof of Don Pedro’s enormous popularity is provided by author Jennifer Seman, who published a map of that era showing that all roads and trails of the region led to Don Pedro. He was Rome. It is an incredible map provided by the General Land Office for 1892 and shows clearly that the most heavily trafficked roads and paths of the time in that general region led to Don Pedro on Los Olmos Creek. Ruth Dodson wrote the first significant book on Don Pedro, in Spanish, in 1934: Don Pedrito Jaramillo, Curandero. At the encouragement of J. Frank Dobie, she collected the Don Pedrito folk tales. After collecting the tales about him for two decades, Dodson concluded “There has never been another so honored and appreciated among the Mexican-American people of South Texas as this curandero, this folk healer, Don Jaramillo. It can also be said that no one else in this part of the country, of whatever nationality, religion, economic or social standing, has done, through a lifetime, as much to try to relieve human suffering as this man did through 25 years of living in South Texas.”
5 minutes | Apr 7, 2021
Larry McMurtry and the Lonesome Dove Quadrilogy
Of the thousands of mourners who posted their goodbyes and gratitudes to Texas writer Larry McMurtry across last month, there was one stand-out theme. It was to thank McMurtry for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Lonesome Dove.” Most considered it his premiere gift to them personally, a gift that had immeasurably enriched their lives, as culturally vital as Homer’s Iliad was to the Greeks. To many, “Lonesome Dove” is a book of proverbs, with advice such as: “The best way to handle death is to ride on away from it.” Or “Yesterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.” In fact, “Lonesome Dove,” the day after McMurtry died, rocketed up into the top 100 best selling books on Amazon, and became the #1 bestseller in Westerns. Without a doubt, many who thanked Larry for “Lonesome Dove,” have read the other three books in the quadrilogy. Yet, I also know, from long experience, that some fans of the book and film, are unaware that there are three other books. There’s a great deal more trail to ride with Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. The first is “Dead Man’s Walk.” Call and Gus are young men, in their early twenties. I’ve always thought of Gus and Call as part of the “buddy cops” genre. Here, we meet them for the first time as Texas Rangers on guard duty, west of the Pecos in pursuit of Comanches. McMurtry writes: “Gus took guard duty a good deal more lightly than his companion, Woodrow Call.” Gus annoys Call when he brings out a jug of mescal and takes a swig in front of him. Call remarks, “If the major caught you drinking on guard he’d shoot you.” There you see already the contrast that will define their friendship throughout the next two books. Gus the free-spirited, fun-loving sociable rule-breaker and Call the disciplined loner. “Comanche Moon” is the second book in the series. Gus and Woodrow are both now Ranger captains, but that comes later in the book. It opens as Gus and Woodrow are part of a troop of 13 Rangers trying to run down Comanche Chief Kicking Wolf. They are pursuing him along the edge of the Palo Duro Canyon. Out on the Llano Estacado, Gus feels disoriented. McMurtry steps in to provide one of his iconic descriptions of the Texas landscape: “There was not a feature to stop the eye on the long plain: no tree, ridge, rise, hill, dip, animal or bird. Augustus could see nothing at all, and he was well known to have the best vision in the troop. The plain was so wide it seemed you could see to the rim of forever, and yet, in all that distance, there was nothing.” “Lonesome Dove” comes next in the story’s chronology. I won’t say much here as this book is the best known of the four. I will say only that it was the first “Game of Thrones” in the sense that McMurtry killed off a great number of characters we came to love. As McMurtry himself wrote in “Lonesome Dove,” “Death and worse happened on the plains.” The final book is “Streets of Laredo.” It was the original name for “Lonesome Dove” when it was just a screenplay. In this last book, Captain Call is hired to pursue a violent, psychopathic killer named Joey Garza who is a thinly-disguised Billy the Kid. In this book, we get a better look at Call and what he’s made of. For instance, here are his thoughts about loyalty: “It seemed to him the highest principle was loyalty. He preferred it to honor. He was never quite sure what men meant when they spoke of their honor, though it had been a popular word during the War. He was sure though, about what he meant when he spoke of loyalty. A man didn’t desert his comrades, his troop, his leader. If he did, he was in Call’s book, useless.” I envy those who have not read the quadrilogy. I would love to be able to have the singular joy of reading them all again for the first time. But a second or third read is mighty enjoyable, too.
4 minutes | Mar 24, 2021
High Security and Low Security Texas
By W. F. Strong Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of neighborhood cultures in Texas: high security and low security. My wife is high security and I’m low security, by tradition. She was raised in Mexico, in a compound surrounded by the classic 12 foot walls with shards of glass embedded on top. I was raised in rural Texas, in a house, with an acre of yard and no walls or fences. We locked our doors at night, if we remembered. These childhood influences carry over. My wife loves these new, inexpensive security cameras. She has six that cover the outer perimeter and four pointing inward. I told her it feels strange having four cameras watching me in the house. She said, with a smile, “Four that you know of.” She says, “It’s not about watching you or the kids; it’s about knowing where everybody is. It’s a mama thing.” This is an interesting contrast to my life as a boy in small town Texas. There, nobody I knew locked their doors, except maybe at night. My mom’s idea of locking up for the night was to latch the screen door. You know, put the metal hook through the eyelet. She liked leaving the heavy inner door open so the night breeze could flow through the house. “Air vitamins,” she called it. Everybody in my neighborhood would lock all their doors when they went on vacation. Yet we all knew that the key to the front door was under the doormat. And any number of neighbors would use that key to put the gathered newspapers or mail into their foyer so passing strangers wouldn’t know they weren’t home. One neighbor down the block, Mr. Jones, kept his key near the back door, third pot to the right, pushed into the dirt. You’d have to dig a bit to find it. Some around there thought that was excessive, said, “Mr. Jones was a bit paranoid.” People also kept their car keys conveniently stored above the driver’s visor or in the unused ash tray or glove compartment. I remember a farmer, who lived nearby, calling me once and asking if I’d go over to house and drive his 3500 GMC out to the farm for him. He needed some tools that were in it. I asked if the keys were in the truck and he said, “Of course. Right there above the visor. Where else would they be? That’s how come I never lose ‘em.” That was true. People never much lost their keys then. They were always where they ought to be, under the mat, above the visor. I can remember my mom saying, “One of you boys didn’t put the key back under the mat. Find it and put it back.” It did seem odd to go to the trouble to have a lock on a door and leave the key in such an accessible place. Might as well tape it on the door. After all these years, I’ve drifted into a more high-security life, myself. Everything is locked and double-locked. Even if I go outside during the day for more than five minutes, I’ll find my wife has locked me out and I’ll have to knock to get back in. Wouldn’t be surprised if she soon asks for the password-of-the-day for re-entry.
5 minutes | Mar 10, 2021
What’s In A Name? For These Famous Texans, Everything.
By W. F. Strong Could there be a better name for the world’s faster runner than Usain Bolt? It’s a dead solid perfect aptronym, which is the formal word for a name that appropriately fits one’s occupation, sometimes humorously. A neurological scholar in England was knighted and became, I kid you not, Lord Brain. The president of Barclays Bank used to be Rich Ricci. What else could he have done but become a banker? The same may be said for George Francis Train, a major player in building the eastern portion of the transcontinental railroad across the United States. Barbara Boxer didn’t go into boxing literally, but as the long-serving former California senator, she was in the full contact sport of politics. I thought I’d look at aptronyms of Texas – people from Texas who have names that are, or were, particularly apt for them. My friend Judge Ken Wise has an ideal name for a judge. He uses his name, too, aptronomously, for his podcast, “Wise about Texas.” In East Texas we used to have a federal judge whose name was William Wayne Justice. He really was all about justice, too. He forced East Texas to integrate their schools and ordered that children of undocumented parents could go to public schools. There are those who study, seriously, the connection between names and destiny. Researchers Brett Pelham and Carvallo Mauricio found that men named Cal and Tex, born outside of Texas and California, had better than 50/50 odds that they’d move to their namesake states in their lifetime. Cals would go to California and those named Tex would mosey on over to the Lone Star State. They also found that the name Dennis is disproportionately represented in the field of Dentistry. Dennis the Dentist. There are also inaptronyms. They are ironic rather than descriptive names. For instance, we used to have a state treasurer in Texas named Jesse James. We put a famous train robber in charge of the money. John Tower was not physically towering, but he was a towering force in politics, both influential and powerful in the U.S. Senate. So his name works both ways. Here’s a few more fun Texas aptronyms: Barbara Staff was great at building staffs for Republican political campaigns. John Sharp, the politically astute former comptroller, is now Texas A&M University chancellor. The last name of Tito of Tito’s Vodka fame is Beveridge. Richard King built a ranch empire that was, and remains, one of the biggest ranches in the world. Great name for the man and the ranch. Ken Starr has certainly seemed to be a star in many political events of the last few decades, with the Clinton impeachment being his biggest starring role. Finally, I have to go back a long way to tell you about Robert Neighbors, a man who was the primary Indian agent in Texas back in the 1850s. It was his impossible task of attempting to forge peace between the white settlers and the Comanche. He was one of the few people, at the time, other than Sam Houston, who spoke a Native American language fluently. He used that skill to talk with Comanches in their lodges and teepees and build trust for the treaties he negotiated with the settlers. Sadly, Neighbors was shot in the back and killed by Edward Cornett because he thought Neighbors was too friendly with the Comanche. Despite the fact that there were three eyewitnesses to the crime, Edward was never tried for the murder. It helps to have your brother-in-law on the grand jury.
5 minutes | Feb 10, 2021
Artist Tom Lea’s ‘Sarah In The Summertime’
As Valentine’s Day is approaching, I thought I’d share a romantic story about one of Texas’s greatest artists, Tom Lea. This is a love story, expressed in one painting, titled “Sarah in the Summertime.” I’ll tell you the story of that painting and how it came to be. Tom Lea was a true renaissance artist in the sense that he was both a gifted painter and writer. He was a muralist and a novelist. His murals are, to this day, in public buildings in Washington, D.C., El Paso, his home town and Odessa. President George W. Bush had one of his paintings hanging in the Oval Office. Lea’s novels, “The Brave Bulls” and “The Wonderful Country” are considered Southwestern classics. His two-volume history of the King Ranch can be found in any home with a good Texas library. Tom met Sarah in 1938, when he was working on his celebrated “Pass of the North” mural in El Paso. He was invited to a small dinner party where she was also a guest. Sarah was from Monticello, Illinois, and in town visiting friends. He was immediately enchanted by her and decided that evening that he wanted to marry her. Tom had the good sense not to confess to that wish right there. No. He waited until their first date two nights later to pop the question. She didn’t say “yes” until he met her parents. Several months later, they were married. It was a storybook romance that spanned 63 years. Tom and Sarah were only apart for one extended period of time during their marriage, and that was during World War II, when he was an artist for Life Magazine, embedded with the U.S. Navy. He documented the realities of the war in drawings and paintings, the most famous of which was “The Two Thousand Yard Stare.” Naturally, Tom missed Sarah terribly every day. Here I will let the famous novelist take over the narration. He wrote: I had a snapshot of Sarah which I carried in my wallet during the whole war. I looked at it, homesick, all over the world. When the war was over, the first painting I began was a full-length, life-size portrait of Sarah in the same dress, the same pose, the same light as the little snapshot. I worked a long time making a preliminary drawing in charcoal and chalk, designing the glow of light and the placement of the figure against a clearness of blue sky, the mountains like Mount Franklin, the leafy trees and green grass and summer sunlight, before I transferred the drawing to the canvas. It was a detailed and precisely measured drawing. For instance, Sarah’s height of 5 foot 6 in high heels was drawn on the canvas exactly 5 ft 6. The painting was done with devotion and without haste. First the background, then the figure, and finally her head. I remember that I worked 26 days painting the pattern of all the little flowers on the dress. … 2 years after I began work on it, longer than any other painting ever took me, I signed it framed it and gave it to Sarah. I see it everyday in our living room and I see Sarah [too]. 20 years have passed. “Sarah in the Summertime” means more to me that I could ever put on canvas. Adair Margo, his agent and decadeslong friend, and founder of the Tom Lea Institute, told me that Tom Lea would never let that painting leave the house, not for any showing or exhibition. Only once was she able to convince him to put it in a local exhibit, but only for a few hours, and it had to be back that night. Tom and Sarah are buried side by side in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. There’s one headstone with divided inscriptions for each. On Sarah’s side it says, from Tom, “Sarah and I live on the east side of the mountain. It is the sunrise side. It is the side to see the day coming. Not the side to see the day is gone. The best day is the day coming, with work to do, with eyes wide open, with the heart grateful.”
4 minutes | Jan 27, 2021
Lyndon Johnson’s Gifts To Texas
For me, Lyndon Johnson did more for Texas in his lifetime than any other politician, except for Sam Houston. And Houston’s greatest gift was given to Texas in the form of a resounding victory at San Jacinto, before he began his political years as president. Two of Johnson’s most enduring gifts to Texas are NASA, and the electricity for rural Texas, especially for the inaccessible hinterlands of the Hill Country. LBJ said, in 1959, that “nothing had ever given him as much satisfaction as” bringing electricity to the rural people of his region. By the end of his life he had a new achievement he was proudest of and believed would be his greatest legacy. That was the founding of the LBJ School of Public Affairs in tandem with dedicating his Presidential Library at the University of Texas at Austin. In this academic year the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Library are both celebrating the 50th anniversary of their founding. The school welcomed its first class in 1970 and the library was dedicated in May of ‘71. These separate institutions represent a fitting legacy.. After all, he said when he was president, quote —“At the desk where I sit, I have learned one great truth. The answer for all our national problems – the answer for all the problems of the world – come to a single word. That word is ‘education.’” Johnson also believed in the education provided by the school of hard knocks. He liked to quote his father who told him that quote — “You should brush yourself up against the grindstone of life and that will give you a polish that Harvard and Yale can’t give you.” LBJ did not have the eloquence of King or Kennedy, but he was a master of personal persuasion. When he had a congressman in the corner of a room at a political breakfast, and a lawmaker’s hand firmly enveloped by his, Johnson could sell abstinence to an alcoholic and even civil rights to a segregationist. No President ever pushed more legislation through Congress than he did, not even FDR. And his focus was on equality for all, in education, in economics, in voting, in opportunity, and in life as a whole. He was a complicated man. He said some racist things in his life, but he was simultaneously an iconic force in the Civil Rights Movement. He passed the Civil Rights Act of ‘64 and the Medicare and Medicaid Act of 65 as well as the Voting Rights Act of ‘65. Consequently, years later, LBJ saw the founding of his school of Public Affairs as the greatest chance he had at fostering the continuation of good works for mankind through government. Unlike many today, he believed that government could in fact do the big things that the little guy couldn’t do for himself – like deliver electricity to rural farms and make sure the color of your skin didn’t determine where you could eat or sleep. When he spoke to a group of students at his School of Public Affairs in Austin about a month before he died. LBJ told them that a life in public affairs, one of helping your fellow man, is the most rewarding of all paths one could take in life. He said, “The greatest known satisfaction for human beings is knowing – and if you are the only one that knows it, it’s there and that’s what’s important – that you’ve made life more just, more equal, and more opportune for your fellow man – and that’s what this school is all about.”
6 minutes | Jan 13, 2021
In Praise Of Vultures
I go for walks in the country often this time of year here in the Rio Grande Valley. This is our Goldilocks season. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right. We have a perfectly warming sun in the crisp, cool air of winter mornings. I like to walk along a dirt road that has freshly plowed farmland on one side and a deep motte of mesquite and huisache trees on the other. A committee of vultures watches me from atop the tallest of these trees, far away from civilization. That’s the official name for a group of vultures. A Committee. Sometimes they are also called a venue of vultures. I like that. Based on what I’ve seen of committees and their venues I can see the salience of the metaphor. In Texas, these birds are often mistakenly called buzzards. This is common but it’s technically wrong because buzzards are completely different birds. We don’t have buzzards in Texas, though I will admit to calling them that myself growing up. I don’t recall referring to groups of birds by their correct labels, either – such as murder of crows or covey of quail or flamboyance of flamingos. I still don’t. I tend more toward my brother “redneck Dave’s” lexicon which is pretty much reduced to the word “bunch.” He says, “You got a bunch of ducks in your yard.” And if there’s more than that he says, “You got a whole bunch of ducks in your yard.” More still are covered by, “You got a mighty big bunch of ducks in your yard.” Back to the vultures. This committee of vultures – turkey vultures in this case, are perched high up in the trees, like undertakers – eyeing me – sometimes stretching out their wings to display their impressive six-foot span. But mostly I’m a curiosity, not a disturbance. They don’t fly away. I’m sure I would be much more interesting to them if I were dead. Turkey Vultures don’t have a lot of fans. Many people see them as disgusting birds that eat disgusting things. They have red heads. They’re mostly bald, with faces that only a mother could love – a mother vulture, that is. On the ground picking through road kill, they look ungraceful and ragged and ungainly. But in the air, they are, to me, transformed into graceful, heart-stirring masters of the wind. On the ground they are called committees, but in they air they are called kettles of vultures because in their swirling ride upward on the thermals, they look like bubbles rising in heated water. Ornithologists, bird experts, tell us that it is by riding high on the thermals that they hunt for carrion, or dead things. But they don’t do it by sight. They do it by smell. The smell of the decaying animals is carried up by the thermals and the birds track that smell to the source. Tests have shown that they always arrive on the upwind side of corpus delicti and that’s how experts know that smell is dominant. Yes, the process is gross to us, but if you consider the scientific name for the turkey vulture – Cathartes Aura – they sound noble. It means cleansing breeze. They swoop in on the wind and clean the earth. And they are disinfectors too, consuming anthrax and cholera bacteria and safely removing it. In this sense they are hazmat teams. But my admiration of these magnificent creatures is fully realized watching them in flight. I can sit in my backyard and watch hundreds of them ride high up in the sky like an avian tornado. They’re having fun up there. They’re not all about carrion, I’m convinced. They’re windsurfers fully elated by this vulture sport they collectively love. The winds do not conquer them. They ride them high into the vaulted blue, cloudless skies. Some, pilots tell us, go as high as 20,000 feet and they rarely have to flap their wings. They just soar and glide, at one with the wind. You can find them all across Texas, along with their slightly smaller cousins, the black vultures, which prefer the eastern part of the state. Together they are our cleaners, our sanitizers, the avian, last line of defense for our most famous slogan: “Don’t mess with Texas.”
4 minutes | Dec 16, 2020
A Letter from Texas
If you had walked into the Neiman-Marcus store during the Christmas season in Dallas in 1939, you would have found a beautiful little book for sale titled A Letter from Texas. The 20-page book, by the Texas poet, Townsend Miller, was commissioned by Stanley Marcus himself. He had the gifted printer Carl Hertzog publish an exquisite limited edition of the poem with the Neiman-Marcus imprint on the title page. Mr. Stanley, as Marcus came to be called, loved the Texcentric poem. He wanted to make it available in the store at Christmastime so that out-of-staters would have a unique gift to take back home or send to friends and family.. I happen to have a copy of Miller’s book. The poem is a letter to his friend, John. In it, Miller shares his passionate love for Texas with a kind of contagious exuberance: John, it is a strange land. John it is hard to describe. But perhaps try this. Hold up your right hand, palm outward, And break the last three fingers down from the joint. And there you have it. The westering thumb. The silent bleak land, the silent mesas Big Bend and the great canyons at its end El Paso, the Northern Pass, and they came down through it. Southward and east, the slow hot river moving River of Palms, Grande del Norte, and over the wrist, To Brownsville, and it empties into the vast blue waters Miller describes each part of the state using the geography of his hand as a model of the Texas. He says “the tongue staggers” to describe the state’s size. Miller was best known for the country music column he wrote for the Austin American-Statesman from 1972-to-1984. He was less of a critic and more of a promoter of the then-nascent music scene in and around Austin – his hometown for most of his life. In his letter-poem to his friend John, Miller also writes: Austin, the central city, and she is crowned with the sun And twice-crowned westward with violet hills, John, the thick roses swarming over the wall. The moon in the white courts, the quivering mornings. Of the Llano Estacado Miller writes: And here I think is the heart of it; Here you begin to sense it, the size, the silence; This is the land, empty under enormous sky, In wide enormous air, nothing of man. Miller’s poem is the sort of letter we write when we want to convince a friend to move here. He concludes this way. So now tonight in the central city Texas lies around me. All silent to the stars; so I write of it. Remembering the slow dusk of the Rio Grande Remembering the high hawks of the violet hills Remembering the dark eyes in the Calle de Flores, And the breeze comes up from the Gulf and in the court Pink oleanders brush on the white wall And the moon at flood over the westering hills And my heart is full of it and I send it to you. Mr. Stanley always had fine aesthetic tastes, especially for Christmas gifts. His offering of this book long ago still holds up nicely as a gift idea today, if you can find a copy, which you can with some ambitious searching. Might make a perfect gift for Tesla’s Elon Musk. Welcome to Texas, Elon.
5 minutes | Nov 4, 2020
The Texas Connection To Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge
Bridges are measured in three ways, for those who like to keep world records and such: longest, tallest and highest. In Texas, the Fred Hartman Bridge is both the longest bridge at 2.6 miles, and the tallest, at 440 feet. But it is not the highest. That honor goes to the aptly named Pecos High Bridge, which is an astounding 322 feet above the Pecos River – a football field straight up. The highest bridge in America, in case you’re wondering, is the Royal Gorge Bridge, which comes in just shy of 1000 feet. It’s in Colorado, and would be in Texas today had we kept our original northern lands. Nonetheless, without Texas, it might not exist at all, as you will see in the history I’m fixin’ to tell you about. The Royal Gorge Bridge was the dream of Lon P. Piper of San Antonio. They say he stood on the edge of the Gorge in 1928 and imagined laying a bridge across it, a suspension bridge. He had already built a bridge across the Rio Grande into Mexico. This Royal Gorge Bridge would be different though. It would be a bridge to nowhere, one that would exist purely to give tourists the kind of heart-stopping views they couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. He knew it would be a challenge, but he was certain it could be done. Within two years he made his dream come true. It cost him $350,000, or $5 million in today’s dollars. But when it was finished, he owned the highest bridge in the world – and it would remain so for 72 years. Lon was quite the entrepreneur in those times. He also developed the Richland Springs Treasure Cave in San Saba as a Carlsbad Caverns-like tourist attraction in the 1920s and ’30s. He was also an early investor in a new concept of motor hotels – or “motels.” Lon hired bridge engineer George Cole of Houston to design the Royal Gorge Bridge and to serve as the general contractor. With 70 men they completed the project in six months without a fatality or any serious injuries. As I learned about the bridge’s history, I couldn’t help but notice its national character. It was a bridge built by Texans, in Colorado, that spanned the Arkansas River, using Oregon timber for the deck. That’s some interstate diversity in one bridge. Mr. Cole went on to design and build the narrow-gauge railroad that would take brave riders to the bottom of the gorge at a 45-degree angle. Now there are gondolas far above the gorge for those who want to go higher still, and zip lines for those who can’t get enough tachycardia in their lives. In 1947, Lon sold the bridge to another Texan, Clint Murchison, Sr. Murchison bought it sight unseen, as an investment, and strangely never traveled there to walk across his magnificent possession. He never stood at the precipice of the gorge to admire the highest bridge in the world that he just happened to own. Makes me think of Fitzgerald who said, “The rich are different from you and me.” No, Muchison just set up the Royal Gorge Bridge Company and based it in Dallas to manage the Colorado property from there. When he died the bridge was passed on to his sons, Clint Murchison, Jr. (you remember him – he founded and owned the Dallas Cowboys for 25 years), and his brother John. When John Murchison died his wife Lucille inherited the bridge and they say, “she just loved it;” she traveled up there to see it several times a year. For the past 20 years the Royal Gorge Bridge’s general manager of operations has been Mike Bandera, a Texan who got his start in the amusement park business at Six Flags Over Texas where he worked for 16 years. Today, the Royal Gorge Bridge, after nearly 100 years, has Colorado ownership. Lucille passed it on to her grandchildren, and they sold it a few years ago to Canyon City. So I’d like to say this to Colorado, about the world-class bridge we envisioned, financed, built and managed for you all these years: “You’re welcome.”
4 minutes | Oct 21, 2020
The Queen’s Royal Welcome to Texas
By W. F. Strong and Lupita Strong February 2021 will mark Queen Elizabeth II’s 69th year on the British throne. In all of those years during which she witnessed some of the world’s most pivotal events, one can say — if one is a Texan — that we deserve an honorable mention amongst those events from her majesty’s life. Specifically, her 1991 two-day visit to the Lone Star state. She was the first British monarch ever to visit Texas and we gave the Queen a Texas-sized tip of the ole Stetson. She loved it. She asked her U.S. chief of protocol, “Why didn’t I come here sooner?” During her visit she gave Texans one of the finest compliments we’ve ever had, but I’ll save that until the end. Texas has long had a special relationship with Great Britain; it was one of the first European nations to recognize the new Republic of Texas. We actually flirted for a while with the notion of becoming part of the British Empire in the 1840’s, but the U.S. had other plans. Five years before the Queen came here, her majesty’s son, Charles, the Prince of Wales, came to Texas to help celebrate the Texas Sesquicentennial. He cut into the 45 ton, world’s largest birthday cake with a three-foot sword. I mean, it was Texas, what else was he supposed to use? At the capital the Prince was given a giant gavel. He laughed and said that it was the biggest he had ever had and “extremely appropriate coming from Texas.” While touring San Jacinto later that week. It was February but warm. He asked, “If it’s as hot as this in the winter, what is like in the summer? ” Texas has had fourteen kings, but it was a queen celebrated by Texas May of 1991. Queen Elizabeth visited Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston with an itinerary jam-packed with visits to the River Walk, NASA, the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, and the Alamo. She even took a ride on the San Antonio River on a beautifully decorated barge. When she arrived at Love Field Airport, she was greeted with strains of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” The words to “God Save the Queen” were recited before the playing of it so that the mostly Texas audience wouldn’t sing My Country Tis of Thee to the familiar tune. While in Dallas, she knighted Cecil Howard Green, British-born founder of Texas Instruments and co-founder of the U-T campus there. Accompanying her majesty on the visit was her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Sitting next to him at the Hall of State dinner commemorating the 150th anniversary of Dallas was Louise Caldwell, president of the Dallas Historical Society. Of the experience, she remarked, “It was very hard to find anything that he didn’t know more about than me . . . including Texas history.” The Queen delighted the audience there by recounting the well known Texas story by John Gunther in which a man tells his son: “Never ask a man where he’s from. If he’s from Texas he’ll tell you. Otherwise no use embarrassing him by asking.” At the State Capitol, Gov. Ann Richards hosted the Queen. Eight-thousand people gathered to catch a glimpse of her majesty. The queen declared, “No state commands such fierce pride and loyalty. Lesser mortals are pitied for their misfortune in not being born Texans.” And she, the most travelled monarch in the world, knows what she’s talking about.
6 minutes | Oct 7, 2020
Norfleet: The Texas Rancher Who Kept On Coming
By W.F. Strong The year was 1919. J. Frank Norfleet, after two years of pursuit, finally slapped the handcuffs on Mr. Stetson in Florida. Stetson – real name: Joe Furey – had swindled Norfleet out of $90,000 in Dallas and Fort Worth two years before. Stetson was shocked to see him and paid him a backhanded compliment. He said, “Well, you old trail hound. I never expected to see you out here. … I thought we left you flat broke in Fort Worth.” Please don’t take me back to Texas, Norfleet … your “damnable hounding” has already cost me “as much money as I have made” off of you. Stetson’s surprise at having Norfleet slap handcuffs on him is equal to the surprise that most people have when they first hear the incredible story of the old rancher’s dogged and ultimately successful pursuit of his swindlers. I’m not spoiling the story by telling the ending because the joy of this story is in the chase. Norfleet had no experience in law enforcement, big city life or sophisticated cons. He was a cowboy and a hunter, a man who had always lived on the edge of the Texas frontier. So when he made up us his mind to pursue the band of bunco men who conned him, he used the only tools he had, which were unfathomable patience, cutting for sign, following the trail no matter how faint, employing camouflage in the way of disguises, always being well-armed, and being willing to withstand all nature of hardship to win in the end. Norfleet out-conned the con men. He seemed to be operating under the motto of Texas Ranger Capt. Bill McDonald: “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right who just keeps on a-comin’.” Norfleet was born in Lampasas and grew up on the Texas plains. He was a working cowboy trail herder in his early days and later managed to buy his own ranch out near Plainview. At 54, he had finally accumulated some real wealth. So he went to Dallas and Fort Worth with the intent of selling his ranch to buy a bigger one. It was there that con men ensnared him in their sophisticated plot. It went like this: Norfleet got into a seemingly casual conversation about mules in the lobby of the St. George Hotel in Dallas. He said that “to one of his upbringing, the most lonesome place in the world is a large city.” So he was happy to find someone of similar tastes and interests. This man, Hamlin, upon hearing Norfleet had a ranch to sell, said he just happened to know someone who might be interested in his land. That interested party, Mr. Spencer, magically appeared and said they would need to go to the Adolphus to see another man. When they sat down in the lobby to wait, Spencer cleverly steered Norfleet so that he’d sit in just the right place to discover a man’s pocket book “lost” in the crevice of the couch. The pocket book had “$240 in cash and a cashable bond for $100,000 dollars.” Mr. Stetson was the name on the Mason’s card inside. Spencer and Norfleet inquired at the desk for a Mr. Stetson, got his room number, and returned the pocket book to him. Mr. Stetson – AKA Joe Furey – offered them both $100 reward. Norfleet refused. Stetson told him that he was a stockbroker with the Dallas exchange and said, “Would you mind me placing that money on the market and would you accept what money it might earn?” Later that day Stetson gave Norfleet $800 as the amount his $100 earned. And that is how the hook was set. From there, much more money was made and eventually cash guarantees required by the fake exchange. When the con men cleared out on the last round, absconding with all of Norfleet’s money, he was left repeating to himself in a stunned haze, “Forty-five thousand dollars gone; $90,000 in debt; 54 years old.” If it happened today he’d be saying, “Seven-hundred-thousand-dollars gone; $1.5 million in debt; 54 years old.” Most swindled people keep quiet about it. Some report it to police but just suffer the loss and go about rebuilding their lives. Furey, who conned many an Englishmen said that the British always handled the loss with such poise. But he resented Norfleet for taking it so personally. So here is where you will want to pick up the book and get on the trail with Norfleet. He logs 30,000 miles pursuing these con men. Its’a great adventure and demonstrates an old cowboy’s enormous creativity and grit. He just wouldn’t quit. You can read his own telling of the story in his fast-moving autobiography, “Norfleet,” published in 1924. Or, you can read a more modern version historically contextualized by Amy Reading in “The Mark Inside.” Whichever you choose, cinch up your saddles nice and snug. It’s gonna be a wild ride.
5 minutes | Sep 23, 2020
Texas: A State That Loves Its Flag
By W.F. Strong If you were ever to start a new country, one of the first tasks you’d have to undertake would be to design a flag. Are you really a country if you don’t have a flag to advertise your existence – a flag that can fly atop skyscrapers, state houses, schools and ships at sea? Now cities and even corporations have flags, as do organizations and social movements. I’m proud to tell you that according to Ted Kaye, one of the world’s leading vexillologists – a fancy word for one who studies flags – the Texas flag is the best-selling of all the state flags. It also rates almost perfect in artistic design. That’s the conclusion of one landmark study by the North American Vexillological Association (try saying that after three beers at sea). The study rated all national, state and territorial flags of North America and found that only New Mexico’s flag had just a smidgen of a better design. Ted Kaye says these are the five rules of good design.: first, keep it simple – so simple a child can draw it from memory. Use meaningful symbolism. Use two to three basic colors – no more than three. No lettering. No words. The design should speak for itself. Do you hear it saying Lone Star State? Yep. And finally, your design should be distinctive. I know what you’re thinking – the Chilean flag. There are accidental similarities, but there is no evidence at all that the Chilean design influenced ours. Not only is the Texas flag the best-selling state flag, it is also displayed more in all its forms than any other state flag. Drive down any neighborhood street in Texas and you will see the flag flying proudly in the Texas breeze on 30 and 40 foot poles in many a yard. It’s displayed from wall mounts on porches or over garages. You will see it over car dealerships and on top of skyscrapers in cities. In the countryside, you’ll see it at the entrance to farms and ranches, perhaps with the Stars and Stripes next to it. It’s at the beach, fluttering and snapping smartly behind four-wheel-drive pickups. Or on boats and at makeshift campsites and even over children’s forts in the woods. It’s found in dorm rooms and in shopping malls. It’s everywhere. And when it’s not in cloth form, you will find it displayed in many a medium. It’s painted on barns. You can’t drive very far in rural Texas without seeing a barn flag. I’ve never seen a Nebraska barn flag. I see many a Texas flag painted on gates, too. Beautiful. Never seen a Michigan flag gate, either. And though it’s not the same, I’d like to point out that we’re the only state with our own toast. There’s no Oregon toast. There’s no Florida-shaped waffle maker either. Yes, the Texas flag is everywhere: t-shirts, swimsuits, towels, bikinis, boots, belt-buckles, earrings and tattoos. We have Texas flag picnic tables, tablecloths and stools. And if it’s not a flag, we have the Texas star as a stand-in, on the side of our houses, hanging on the wall in the kitchen, or on the apron we’re barbecuing with. I have even seen a Texas star barbecue grill cover. John Steinbeck pointed out that the deep love and commitment Texans have for their state closely approximates that of a religion. Based on the affection we have for our symbols; it seems that we are an extraordinarily devout people. As this is radio I can’t end with the flag, but I can play Willie. You can hear Texas in his voice.
5 minutes | Sep 9, 2020
The Tragic Story of Dora Hand
My friend, Jac Darsnek, owner of the always remarkable Traces of Texas webpage sent me a message recently. He asked if I had ever told the story of Dora Hand on the radio. I said, no, but I will. Thanks for the suggestion Jac. Here we go: Dora Hand, many said, was the most beautiful woman in Dodge City, back in the seventies. That would be the 1870’s. To her rare beauty you may add an angelic, hypnotic voice that mesmerized all the cowboys who saw her perform at the Lady Gay Theater. She was a nightly singer there and performed also at the Alhambra Saloon. The cowboys coming in off the range from long cattle drives flocked to hear her. She sang in church, too, and those same cowboys, many of them strangers to church, would go just to hear her sing. Dora was much loved in the city for her singing and also because she shared her substantial income quite liberally with the less fortunate of Dodge. Dodge City Mayor Jim “Dog” Kelley also owned the Alahambra and as such, was Hand’s benefactor and protector and probable boyfriend. One cowboy from Texas, the wealthy and handsome James “Spike” Kenedy came to hear her sing and was soon infatuated with her. Dog and Spike eventually got into a bar-room brawl over their dislike for one another and Mayor Kelley spiked, Spike, head-first embarrassingly into the dirt-street outside. Spike Kenedy could not let this slight go unanswered. He left town a while and bought himself the fastest horse he could find so that he could outrun any posse that might pursue him. Then he returned one night to the mayor’s house and fired two shots through the plank wood at the spot where he knew Dog slept. Kenedy then raced off on his fast horse for what he thought was a clean get-away. Unbeknownst to him, Mayor Kelley was not home. Dora was house-sitting. Spike had killed her. Famed Dodge City Sheriff Bat Masterson assembled a posse of lawmen including Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman, and Charley Bassett. Together, they took off after Spike Kenedy. It was kind of a dream-team posse, as if Superman, Batman, and Spiderman and Captain America got together to bring Spike to justice. They took a short-cut and caught up with Spike as he was ready to cross the Arkansas River. He turned his horse and ran, but Wyatt Earp shot Spike’s horse out from under him. Mastersno winged Spike in the shoulder. They took him back to Dodge and put him in jail, where Spike learned he had killed Dora, instead of Kelley , though he didn’t confess to the crime. Spike’s father, Texas rancher Mifflin Kenedy immediately made his way up to Dodge City to arrange defense for his son’s crime. His father was no stranger to Dodge City as he provided, from his ranches in Texas, a huge percentage of the cattle brought there each year. Mifflin Kenedy, was also the co-founder of the King Ranch. Kenedy, Texas is named for him, as is Kenedy County. Suffice it to say that he was quite rich and influential. So he arrived, they say, with a satchel full of money, and arranged for his 23 year old son Spike to get the medical care he needed for his shoulder wound. A judge conducted an inquest into Hand’s death. But after a meeting that included Marshal Masterson, Mayor Kelley — the crime’s supposed target — deputies and the judge, they came to an understanding. Spike would be released for lack of evidence. No one saw him do it. Some say that there was a good deal of money exchanged that day, because, in the year following, each of those attending suddenly had eyebrow-raising funds for the building of nice homes and purchasing of successful businesses. No one knows for sure, but that’s what many have deduced. Dora, just 34, was not forgotten. She received a magnificent funeral with a grand escort from all levels of society. As many as 400 mounted cowboys escorted her funeral carriage to Boot Hill, the biggest ever seen in Dodge City. Spike, or Santiago as his mother, Petra, called him, eventually lost most of his left arm due to infections within the wound. He returned to Texas and died six years later at the age of 29 of typhoid fever. He is buried in the family plot in the Brownsville cemetery. For a more detailed story see Petra’s Legacy: The South Texas Ranching Empire of Petra Vela and Mifflin Kenedy by Jane Clements Monday and Frances Brannen Vick, 2007.
5 minutes | Aug 26, 2020
El Llano Estacado
By W. F. Strong The Llano Estacado is an enormous mesa. It covers more than 37-thousand square miles of Texas and New Mexico. On this side of the state border it starts north of Amarillo and ends south of Odessa. But how did it get its name and what exactly does it mean? Turns out, there are about five different theories about that. Today, the Llano Estacado has been immortalized in art. Just think of this song from Gary P. Nunn: “It’s the Llano Estacado, It’s the Brazos and the Colorado; Spirit of the people down here who share this land!” One thing all the theories about its origin story agree on is that there’s a reason the name is Spanish. It’s credited at least in part to conquistador Francisco Coronado who called the area “Los Llanos” — the plains. And that’s where the stories begin to diverge. The most common one is that Llano Estacado means “staked plains” because “estacado” is the past participle of “estacar,” a verb meaning “to stake” or “to stake out.” The belief was that the vast spaces of the mesa were so disorienting that early explorers and settlers needed to leave stakes in the ground to navigate in a straight line, and to have a direct line of retreat should they need it. Even Coronado’s Native American guides would shoot an arrow straight ahead and then walk to the arrow, and repeat the process over and over to keep from going in a circle. But others say that in the time of Coronado, the term “estacar” had a different meaning. It meant “palisaded plains,” or “stockaded plains,” looking like a fort. If you approach the caprock as Coronado did, and as I have done myself, west of Amarillo along the Canadian breaks, from a distance of 20 miles, the rise onto the caprock does indeed look like a fortress stretching as far as one can see. But here’s another bit of the puzzle — the great geographer and historian John Miller Morris tells us that Coronado never wrote the words “Llano Estacado.” But Coronado did leave us a detailed description of Lo Llano in a letter to the King of Spain: “…there is not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.” This brings us to Morris’s most compelling theory about the name. With no trees and shrubs available, explorers and hunters needed to “stake out” or hobble their horses at night or they’d be gone in the morning. All of the theories have their appeals. But I doubt the origin of the name will ever be settled. Just like its name, the infinite flat land, the ocean of grass that once supported millions of buffalo, remains a romanticized landscape of mystery to this day. There’s a sublime book by Shelley Armitage called Walking the Llano. Ms. Armitage has lived on the Llano off and on most of her life and her book reminds me of magical works like Desert Solitaire and Goodbye to a River. She writes, “There’s been no poet of these plains . . . but there is a poetry of the plains. This part of the Llano exists . . . as a shape of time, requiring the rhythm of a habit of landscape, of the repetition of experiencing.” She quotes Mary Austin, “It’s the land that wants to be said.” Ms. Armitage also ran on the Llano. She writes, “The running taught me something. I began to learn that the land is lyric. I could feel the rhythm of the land come into my legs, up into my chest and heart, and out my mouth as breath. Later it came out as writing.” Perhaps Shelley Armitage is the very poet of the plains she claims does not exist. Armitage also tells of the advice of an elder of the White Mountain Apaches, who said, “Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. . . You must remember everything about [places]. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise.” We must do this for the Llano Estacado, in poetry and prose and song.
5 minutes | Aug 12, 2020
How Madame Curie’s Philanthropy Continues To Inspire
By W. F. Strong A couple of years ago, there was a photograph published on Twitter of a group of radiation oncologists in the radiation treatment room at MD Anderson, all women, under the hashtag, “Women Who Curie.” They were celebrating the legacy of Madame Marie Curie and her pioneering work in radiology that daily inspires their mission. As I looked at the photograph of the nine doctors at MD Anderson, I realized that Madame Curie’s legacy was far greater than Nobel Prizes and scientific advancement. She added the benefit of opening previously closed doors in science and medicine to women. Madame Curie was not just perceived as a female interloper seeking equality in disciplines generally reserved for men, but she was also an immigrant, a double minority at the Sorbonne. She was ignored and pushed aside and denied lab space and vital equipment. She succeeded by virtue of an iron will and unrelenting genius. Few people realize she passed up Bill Gates-type wealth by not seeking a would-be priceless patent for radium, the element she and her husband Pierre discovered. She said the element “belongs to the people.” That act of philanthropy paved the way for institutes like M.D. Anderson, and her pioneering work for women served to staff them with brilliant professionals, too. Sometimes I wonder how much further along the human race would be now had we not denied education to half of us for most of recorded time. One little known story about Madame Curie is that she feared at one point that she would not be able to complete her degree at the Sorbonne for lack of funds. She had resigned herself to the idea that she would have to remain in Poland and live a life as a tutor or a governess. Then came the miracle. She received, unexpectedly, the Alexandrovitch Scholarship of 600 rubles – about $300. She calculated that it was enough, if she lived meagerly, with little heat and less food, to complete her master’s degree. She did, graduating first in her class. And that was just the beginning. She would graduate a little over a year later with another degree in Mathematics. As soon as she took her first job, from her first paychecks, she pulled out 600 rubles and paid back the Alexandrovitch Foundation for the scholarship they had given her. This had never happened before. The foundation was shocked, but as Madame Curie’s daughter said of her mother: “In her uncompromising soul she would have judged herself dishonest if she had kept, for one unnecessary moment the money which now could serve as life buoy to another young girl.” Now, that’s paying back AND forward. Madame Curie went on to be the first female Ph.D. at the Sorbonne and the first female professor as well. In addition, she was awarded not one, but two Nobel Prizes, in different sciences – the first person, male or female, ever to achieve that distinction. So as I looked at the photograph of the women she inspired at MD Anderson, I thought of Madame Curie’s influential reach across a century, across vast oceans. MD Anderson doctors have received the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Award from the American Association for Women in Radiology four times in twenty years. MD Anderson also maintains a sister institutional relationship with the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Cancer Center in Warsaw. Marie is still enlightening minds, inspiring the academically marginalized and healing the sick, even here in Texas.
4 minutes | Jul 16, 2020
By W. F. Strong and Lupita Strong Dichos are proverbs. Dichos is a Spanish word for wise sayings, clever maxims, humorous perspectives that can guide you well. Dichos are life coaches, lighting a pathway that, if followed, can make our lives better and less painful. Dichos are nuggets of wisdom that are handed, like gold, from parents to children to enrich their lives. They exist in all languages of course, but here in Texas we get the benefit of having them in English and Spanish. Sometimes they’re similar, but sometimes they’re vastly different in both content and expression. I’ve collected a few of my favorite dichos to share. I’m grateful to my diaspora of Hispanic friends who sent in an avalanche of suggestions which helped me remember some I’d forgotten and taught me a few new ones as well. To spare you from my inadequate Spanish rhythms, I’ve brought in an authentic voice to help out. Vámonos! There are many dichos about the value of keeping your mouth shut: En boca cerrada, no entran mosca. Keep your mouth shut and no flies will get in. El pez por la boca muere. Fish die through their mouth. There are many dichos about love, of course. Here are two about long distance love: Amor de lejos es amor de pen#$%&@ – well, can’t finish that one here, but I’m sure – if you know some Spanish – you can. Long distance love is a love for DANG fools. And there’s a corollary: Amor de lejos, felices los cuatro. Long distance love makes four people happy. Here are two about the best laid plans: Del plato, a la boca… se cae la sopa. From the bowl to the mouth, you can lose your soup. Or, Del dicho al hecho, hay mucho trecho. From planning to doing, much can go wrong. Now for a few about being a good person. Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres. Tell me who you run with and I’ll tell you who you are. Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda. A monkey in a silk dress is still a monkey. Lipstick on a pig. El burro hablando de orejas. The donkey talking about ears – hypocrisy. And for lazy people we have these cautionary dichos: Camaron que se duerme so lo lleva la corriente and El flojo trabaja doble. Sleeping shrimp get carried away by the current and the lazy one does everything twice. The devil often appears in dichos: Más sabe el diablo por viejo, que por diablo. The devil is cunning because he’s ancient not because he’s the devil. And here’s the five-second rule in dicho form. When you drop food on the floor you will often hear: Todo para dios, nada para el diablo. All for God, none for the devil. Let us end with this timeless jewel: Los niños y los borrachos, siempre dicen la verdad. Little children and drunks always tell the truth. I’ll drink to that. I’m W. F. Strong. Estas son historias de Tejas. Algunas son verdaderas.
4 minutes | Jul 1, 2020
Jefferson Davis Highway: The Persistence Of A Confederate Memorial
By W.F. Strong On July 29, 1925 — a full 60 years after the American Civil War — Miss Decca Lamar West of Waco, Texas, wrote a strongly worded letter to Chief Thomas H. MacDonald, the head of what was then the Federal Bureau of Public Roads. Miss West was an influential member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who was lobbying for a coast to coast highway to honor the Former President of the Confederate States. After all, President Abraham Lincoln had a highway already that stretched from New York City to San Francisco. She wrote: The Jefferson Davis Highway directors are doing constructive work in every state, and patriotically the women of the United States feel that nothing could tend to the greater unity and understanding of the people than that two transcontinental highways should be named for the two great leaders of the critical period of American history. The honorary highway of which she wrote was almost fully realized. Today, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway still exists – but only in bits and pieces – from Virginia to California. You’ll find United Daughters of the Confederacy markers along highways in Georgia and Louisiana and Arizona. But New Mexico had them all removed from along I-10 two years ago. You can see the Texas markers along U.S. 90 and 290 and I-35 and along Highways 59 and 77 South toward the border. Others have been removed — including those in Elgin, San Antonio, and San Marcos. Brownsville just removed its marker after a contentious debate. The marker, originally placed on Palm Boulevard by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1927, was later moved to a city park after the state passed on certifying that memorial route. It was a simple, large boulder with a plaque praising Jefferson Davis. Some wanted the boulder removed altogether because it honored Davis who was a traitor to the U.S. Others felt that removing it would be an attempt to erase history. My contention is that the monument itself tried to erase history. It was one of at least 250 markers placed along U. S. roadways which tried to re-brand Jefferson Davis, to make the enslaver equal to the emancipator. The plaque on the boulder in Brownsville was stone cold propaganda. The plaque identifies Davis as President of the C.S.A. The word “Confederacy” is not spelled out there. Were they hiding the word from Davis’s resume? He is lauded as a United States soldier and Senator. It says he resigned as Senator, but it omits the fact that he resigned to create a new country where slavery would be forever legal. Finally, he is declared a martyr, but a martyr for what? Hundreds of thousands died for his cause but he didn’t. President Ulysses S. Grant believed the contentiousness that resulted from the Civil War would, in time, pass. In 1885, in his famous memoirs, he wrote: “As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.” And yet these arguments over monuments persist.
6 minutes | Jun 3, 2020
How Texas Became A Desert
By W. F. Strong To much of the world, and to many people in the U.S. who have never been to Texas, the state is a vast desert. It is not the Sahara, but instead a high-plains arid region studded with rocky mesas, sweeping wall-like cliffs, dusty canyons, and sometimes adorned with thousands of Saguaro cacti – native to Arizona, not Texas. Certainly there are parts of west Texas that have some aspects of these images, but more than half the state is green with rolling hills, lush forests and vibrant coastal plains. Yet the desert images dominate minds in distant lands. For that, we can thank Hollywood. There are many John Wayne westerns with story lines that weave through Texas, but the films were shot in Utah and northern or southern Arizona. The most jarring example to me is The Searchers. To my mind, The Searchers was John Wayne’s best film. Here’s a clip where Mrs. Jorgensen, a tough frontier woman, defines these early Texans: “It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year and next, and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Someday this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.” As she says this on her front porch, she is looking at a view of Monument Valley, Utah. Wayne made five movies in Monument Valley, even though two of them, The Searchers and Rio Grande, had storylines that based them in Texas. Wayne actually said, “Monument Valley is the place where God put the West.” Another Wayne film that is shocking to a native Texan is The Comancheros. The plot has Wayne playing Texas Ranger Jake Cutter. Great name. He arrests an outlaw for murder on a boat arriving in Galveston and tells him he will return him to Louisiana: Regret: Well, I’ve committed no crime in Texas. Cutter: Right. But you killed a man in Louisiana. My job’s to take you to the Ranger Headquarters where a Louisiana Marshall will pick you up. They’ll take you back to New Orleans and the gallows. You know we’re getting real obliging to the states down here in Texas. A lot of folks want to join the Union. Regret: I have a couple of hundred in gold in that jacket. That give you any ideas, friend? Cutter: I’ve got what you might call a weakness. I’m honest. As Cutter exits the boat in Galveston with his handcuffed prisoner, Paul Regret, in tow, he walks right into Southeastern Utah where the film was shot in Professor Valley and the La Sal Mountains, among other places near Moab. Stunning country for cinemascope technology to capture, but not Texas. Rio Bravo and El Dorado were two John Wayne Films with Texas settings shot in and around the Sonoran Desert west of Tucson. The landscape there is dominated by thousands of saguaros, enormous 40-foot cacti that look like sentinels of the desert. Such sights don’t exist in Texas. Clint Eastwood’s For a Few Dollars More is set in and around El Paso, but it was actually shot in the Tabernas Desert near Almería, Spain. Fort Bravo, also called Hollywood, Texas, is a movie set town built there in the sixties and has served as a backdrop for many classic Western films like Once Upon a Time in the West and the famous Spaghetti Westerns. Not all of those have Texas storylines, but some do. For a Few Dollars More does, and at least in this case, the landscape of Almería is a good match for the El Paso region. Two films more true to Texas in landscape were Giant, shot almost completely around Marfa, and No Country for Old Men, filmed mostly in Texas, but some in New Mexico. Texas Rising troubled some Texans for two reasons: one, being shot almost entirely in Mexico, which seemed sacrilegiously ironic. And two, for scenes of rugged mountains around Victoria, Texas. I think they got their Victorias mixed up. A more recent film called Hell or High Water, starring Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger chasing bank robbers in the Panhandle, was largely shot in New Mexico. So you see, movie-Texas depicts a greater land of diversity than Texas actually has within it. To much of the world, we are Arizona and Utah and New Mexico, and we are Mexico and Italy and Spain. Mostly desert. Everything is bigger in Texas because Hollywood has subconsciously created a much wider world in the collective mind of moviegoers.
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