Created with Sketch.
Texas Standard » Stories from Texas
6 minutes | 12 days ago
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 | a month ago
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 | 3 months ago
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 | 3 months ago
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 | 4 months ago
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 | 4 months ago
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 | 5 months ago
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 | 5 months ago
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 | 5 months ago
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 | 6 months ago
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 | 7 months ago
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 | 8 months ago
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.
5 minutes | 8 months ago
El Rio Bravo
By W.F. Strong Ten years ago I was touring the great Catedral de Sevilla, in Spain, when I got into an unexpectedly informative conversation about Texas with an 80-year-old guide of that majestic church. When he discovered that I was from South Texas, he asked me, in perfect British English, “Did you know that your river there in Texas is named after our river, the Guadalquivir?” I said I didn’t understand how that could be so. How do you get Rio Grande from Guadalqivir? He said, “Guadalquivir is a Spanish distortion of the Arabic, meaning “the brave river” or “the great river.” So, when the original cowboys of Andalucia from southern Spain settled in northern Mexico, they thought the river looked like the Guadalquivir, so they called it the “Rio Bravo.” Well, that was one more origin story to add to many others that claim to tell how the Rio Grande River, or the Rio Bravo – as it is known on the Mexican side – got its name. I can’t speak for or against the veracity of the guide’s story, but as a story, it’s interesting, which is the first rule of stories. Some say Álvarez de Pineda first named the Rio Grande, El Rio de Las Palmas, in 1519. But others say he was really at the mouth of the Pánuco River near Tampico – much farther south in Mexico – not the Rio Grande. But we have to consider the Pineda Stone as evidence, which was found deep in the sand near the mouth of the Rio Grande in 1974, with his name etched on, along with the number of men and ships he had with him. Many believe it is fake, but just as many feel it’s real. We do know that explorer Juan de Oñate called the river El Rio Grande in writing in 1598. Strangely, Cabeza de Vaca crossed it 70 years earlier on his wild trek across Texas and Mexico, but never mentioned the river at all. The river has also been called Rio Grande del Norte and Rio Bravo del Norte. Today, we know for sure that it is called the Rio Grande on the Texas side, and the Rio Bravo on the Mexican side. At one time it was certainly brave and grand, with steamboats piloted by Texas legends like Richard King and his business partner Mifflin Kenedy, who traveled 130 miles inland all the way to Rio Grande City, and in a rare case, all the way to Laredo. Though the river, once half-a-mile wide at some points, certainly earned its name, now we might call it El Arroyo Valiente, or Courageous Creek, because, along its 2,000-mile journey from Colorado to the Gulf, it’s often no bigger than a creek. So, many cities and towns along its bank pull water from it that is a mere trickle of its former self. No wonder Will Rogers once said that the Rio Grande is the only river he “ever saw that needed irrigation.” And down toward the mouth, the river is incredibly crooked, like an enormous water moccasin sunning itself in lazy loops and curls. Gen. Zachary Taylor said his soldiers believed it was so crooked there seemed to be only one shore. I can attest to this myself. I once rode my motorcycle along the northern trails that follow the curves of the riverside, but my eyes told me otherwise. It’s terribly disorienting. Riverboat pilots said it was 100 horse miles from Brownsville to Rio Grande City, but 175 river miles. The river is to Texas and northern Mexico what the Nile is to Egypt. It is quite simply life itself, and always has been. And there are still quiet, isolated spots along the river. Ones where I found myself looking north across the water, even though I was not on the Mexican side where enormous canyon walls rise toward the heavens 2,000 feet overhead. Where exotic parrots fly in screeching flocks through the wild palm orchards – places you can sit and channel the words author John Graves wrote about a different Texas river: “If you are lucky and reverent, and hush for a moment the doubts in your head, sometimes God will whisper in your ear.”
6 minutes | 9 months ago
The Hero Of Cinco De Mayo Was A Texan
My wife Lupita and I were celebrating Cinco de Mayo at home Tuesday. We had a couple – or so – margaritas in honor of General Zaragoza’s victory at the Battle of Puebla. Lupita said, “I wonder if Texans know what they’re celebrating when they party on Cinco de Mayo.” She’s originally from Mexico and, though she knows the history well, she also knows that most Mexicans outside of Puebla don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo as much as people do in Texas. “I think many people treat it like they do St. Patrick’s Day, a fun theme party of dressing green, drinking green – a good reason to party without knowing much about the real St. Patrick,” she said. “To many, Cinco de Mayo is Mexican food, margaritas and tequila shots, and I’m totally down for that, but I bet some Texans would be surprised to know that General Zaragoza was a Texan, and 500 of the men at the battle were Tejanos.” Now on a mission, she downed her margarita and whipped out her cell to Google it right quick. “Ah ha, mira, right as usual.” She showed me a survey that said only one in ten Americans know Cinco de Mayo’s true meaning: 39% think it’s Mexican Independence Day – it isn’t, 26% say it’s a celebration of Mexican culture and 13% of the exceptionally honest say it’s a good reason to drink. Most planned to celebrate by eating Mexican food, drinking margaritas or Mexican beer or having a Cinco de Mayo party at home. Interesting. I was more focused on the Texas connection myself. I was not surprised by the poor familiarity with the meaning of the date, or troubled by the faux association of Cinco de Mayo with “Three Amigos” and their saving of Santo Poco from El Guapo. People gotta have fun. I knew about General Zaragoza being a Texan, but I didn’t know how deep his Texas roots went until I did some digging – pun thoroughly intended. He was born in Goliad in 1829, when Texas was part of Mexico, and only a few years before Texas Independence. If we look at his full name, Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, we learn something. That last name, Seguin, was his mother’s name. She was from San Antonio and a cousin of Juan Seguin who fought Santa Anna in the Texas Revolution and for whom the city of Seguin is named. Ignacio’s father owned 11 leagues of land along the Red River, or about 50,000 acres, according to the Texas Land Office. He bought it for 100 pesos a league. That’s mind-blowing. You couldn’t even buy a square foot of that land today for 100 pesos. All this proves General Zaragoza’s Texas bonafides. When Ignacio was in his early twenties, he joined the revolutionary army of Benito Juárez and eventually led an army of volunteers in defeating Santa Anna. Yes, that same Santa Anna. Zaragoza’s victory effectively removed Santa Anna as dictator of Mexico. That’s another reason we should recognize Zaragoza. Like all good Texans, he despised Santa Anna and wanted him dead so democracy could live. It is astonishing that Santa Anna was in power again 20 years after his humiliating loss at San Jacinto. But that man had more political lives than a cat. He was president of Mexico 11 times. No one man ever failed so often and so badly and still managed to claw his way back into power as Santa Anna did. Now, on to Puebla. The French, under Napoleon III, wanted to make Mexico their own colony in the Americas. They sent a large force of crack troops – 8,000 men – to take Mexico by storm. Juarez sent General Zaragoza to Puebla to defend Mexico from the Imperialist Invasion. This was Mexico’s San Jacinto moment. Zaragoza had half as many men as the French army. He was definitely the underdog in this fight and was expected to lose badly. The French army’s commander had the same haughty attitude that Santa Anna had about the Texans. He saw them as riffraff, as commoners, low-bred men without discipline. The French commander, Ferdinand Letrille, wrote that the Mexicans he faced “were of a lower race, poorly organized, poorly disciplined, of low morals” and in a uniquely French insult of a military force, said that they “lacked good taste.” General Zaragoza enjoyed a stunning victory over those crack troops of good taste that day. The French lost 500 men at the Battle of Puebla: the Mexicans lost 100 and sent the French back to the coast, licking their wounds. The French hadn’t lost a battle in 50 years, so this was a demoralizing defeat and a victory of national pride for the Mexicans that cannot be overstated. Sadly, General Zaragoza died four months later of typhoid fever. He was just 33. So we raise our margarita glasses on Cinco de Mayo to salute native Texan, General Zaragoza Seguin, for removing Santa Anna from power – forever – and for his San Jacinto-like victory at Puebla.
3 minutes | 9 months ago
Texas Cowboy Moves to Montana
by W. F. Strong (adapted from folklore) I think we’re in need of humor more now than ever before. So I thought I’d share with you this bit of classic Texas folklore. You may well have heard it before and, if you have, I’m sure you won’t mind hearing it again. If you haven’t heard it, well, you’ll have the pleasure of hearing it for the first time. Nothing better than novel humor, providing it’s well told. I’ll do my best. A Texas Cowboy who had just recently moved to Montana walked into a bar up there and ordered three mugs of draft beer. He took a seat in the back of the room by himself and commenced to drinking all three beers by taking a sip out of each one in a consistent sequence so that he finished them all at the same time. Then he walked back up to the bar and asked the barkeep for three more. Well, the bartender, wanting to be helpful, said, “You know, partner, a mug of beer can go a bit flat fairly soon after it’s drawn. You can buy ‘em three at time, if you like, but I can bring ‘em out to you one at a time to keep ‘em cold, fresh and crisp.” The Texan replied, “Well, you see, I do it this way because I have two brothers. We were always close until a few months ago when we all, sadly, had to leave Texas for a while because of job transfers. One went to Georgia, the other to, sorry to say, New York. We agreed to always drink as I’m doing now to honor our good times together until we can all get back to Texas. So, I’m drinking one beer for me and two for my brothers.” The barkeep was touched by the man’s custom and pushed three mugs of beer to him, and said, “This round’s on me.” The Texan took a liking to the place. Felt like home. He came in there all the time afterwards and always followed his three beer tradition. The regulars became aware of it after a while and admired his unique commemoration. Sometimes bar patrons would even hoist a beer up in his direction and offer a toast. “To the brothers!” they’d say. One day, the Texan came in and ordered two beers, sat down and began drinking them in turn. Everybody noticed and the bar got quiet, unusually silent. The bartender felt he should say something so he walked over to the cowboy’s table and said quite sincerely, “I’m sorry about the loss of your brother, truly sorry.” The cowboy looked confused a minute and then figured out what the bartender was thinking. He laughed and said, “Oh, no, no. Nobody died or nothin’. It’s just, you see, me and my wife joined a really strict church last week and I had to swear off drinkin’.” Then it was the bartender’s turn to look confused. The Texan explained, “Well, that didn’t affect my brothers none.”
5 minutes | 10 months ago
Things ‘Redneck Dave’ Said to Me on the Drive Across Texas
By W. F. Strong A while back I had occasion to travel across 400 miles of Texas, about half the state, with my older brother, Redneck Dave. We call him that out of admiration for his unbending and unapologetic devotion to life as he sees it. He loves his nickname, by the way. Wears it proudly. He is one who is not particularly talkative on long drives, but does share a few observations between long silences. In fact, he’s not very talkative anywhere. Even if six or seven guys are sitting around at the house shootin’ the bull, he’s not likely to say much. He’ll just be in the corner quietly whittling a stick. He doesn’t carve it into anything, he mostly whittles big sticks into little ones and then starts on another stick. Once in a while he’ll look up and share a thought or correct someone on something, and it is then that people pay attention because he’s got a tiny bit of Confucious in him, a tendency to nail down the truth in a way that sticks with you. When I travel with him, which is rare because he doesn’t much care to travel, he is different from most riders because he doesn’t have a phone to distract him. He just looks out the window and watches the world go by, seeing things the average person would miss–because they’d be scrolling through their phone–or because the things that fascinate him wouldn’t even register in most of our minds. It’s like having your personal color commentator along for the ride. So I made a note of a few things Redneck Dave said on our drive across Texas. They are these: “Let’s take the FM roads as much as we can. Stay off the Interstates. I don’t want to be looking at the butt-ends of 18 wheelers all the way.” “I’d like to meet the guy that built that fence. Always liked a man who could build a good fence. We’d get along, him and me. Look at that. He’s got eight inch round posts ever’ forty feet set in Quickrete and t-posts every ten foot in between. King Ranch fencing. Straight as a West Texas highway and tight as a banker. That wudn’t stretched with a come-along, I’ll tell you that for sure. That was done with a tractor. Can’t get a fence like that that tight with just a come-along.” “They built all these expressway bypasses around these little towns. Terrible thing. A bypass will save a man with a bad heart, but it’ll kill a town. Sad to see it come to this. These little towns is what made Texas Texas. Hell, where do you think the talent and know how in them big cities come from? It came from these little towns. They’re killin’ off the farm teams.” “You’re drivin.’ You can’t look, but there’s a beautiful Brahman Bull back there about 200 yards in that pasture. Must be a trouble-maker. Appears to be pastured all alone, separated from the herd.” “That’s hell of a big pothole you just hit. I think you had to aim for half a mile to get lined up right.” “These big ole windmills they have. What’s that? Turbines they call ‘em? Yeah. Well, to me they’re just windmills on steroids. I’m not against ‘em for what they do, but they sure do ugly up the place. Do they need so many? Looks like greed won out over pretty.” “Heads up. You got a big freight truck comin’ up behind you doin’ 90. Ever notice that as you get close to a big city, about 40 miles out, everybody drives faster? The closer to your destination, faster you drive. Not true for old people though. They’re all closer to their final destination in life, and they drive slower. You’d think teenagers would drive slow, given all the time they have, and old people would be in a hurry, but it’s the opposite.” “That was a good lunch. Used to they’d give you a glass of ice water before you sat down. Now you have to buy it–for three bucks. Not even Texas water. Comes from Japan or one of them snowy countries in Europe. ” “I’m gonna have to see a man about a horse pretty soon. No, I don’t want to go to no rest stop. Eight-hundred people in those places. Might as well take a number. Just pull over there by that fence. I prefer the rancho grande. No line, no waiting. And I always go on the road side of the fence. Government land.” “You need to lose weight. Here’s my diet for you. Work more than you sit. Don’t eat if you ain’t hungry. Big meal at noon. No second helpings. No eating after supper, which is at 7.” “Thanks for the ride, brother. I’ll get on down there to see you soon. Just have to wait a while. DPS ain’t real happy with me right now. Supposedly I owe them some money. Best I’m not out on the public highways just now and sadly there ain’t enough dirt roads to reach you. When they settle down I’ll come see ya.” Redneck Dave is always a delight. I’m sure most Texas families have one of their own, or wish they did.
6 minutes | 10 months ago
The Texas Polio Epidemic
The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, if there is one, seems to be that it spares children. The polio epidemic that raged off and on in the United States for about 40 years did the opposite. Indeed, it seemed to focus on children. Whereas there is hope that COVID-19, like the flu, will weaken in warmer weather, polio was most aggressive in the summer months. As such, Texas was perhaps the hardest hit state of all. Dr. Heather Green Wooten, a medical historian, and author of the award-winning book, The Polio Years in Texas: Battling a Terrifying Unknown, told me the story of how Texas responded to the polio epidemic that terrified the state every summer for years. Dr. Wooten told me that when San Angelo had a breakout of polio in 1949 – the hardest-hit town per capita that year in the U.S. – it was horrifying in scope for the city of 50,000. Sixty children in San Angelo came down with polio in one summer. Many died. Movie theaters and swimming pools and public gatherings were shut down. Travelers passing through would roll up their windows so as not to breathe the potentially contaminated air. They wouldn’t even fill up a low tire at the gas station for fear of taking the virus with them. Some residents refused to talk on the phone with anyone, believing that perhaps, somehow, polio could travel through the phone lines. This kind of fear gripped Texas every summer for years. Parents would not let their children swim or go to summer camp or do anything in groups in an effort to keep them safe. Houses were kept spotless and were scrubbed top to bottom to kill all the germs. In fact, Wooten told me, “When mothers lost a child to polio, they suffered added anguish because they felt they would be judged as bad mothers and poor housekeepers. They would explain to reporters that ‘they had always kept a very clean house and didn’t understand how this could have happened.’” There was a public service song by Red River Dave, frequently played on the radio in those days. It stressed cleanliness. Here’s a sample: Take care that all the food you eat and kitchen ware is clean/ Kill the rats and kill the mice and make the roaches go/ That’s the way to really whip that mean old polio The response to polio was largely a grassroots one, with the common man (and children) largely funding the research, the treatments, the hospitals and rehab centers. The March of Dimes, launched by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was enormously successful in this regard. It mobilized school children and civic groups of all kinds – Rotary International, Kiwanis, The Masons – to collect dimes, quarters and dollars from anyone and everyone. Theaters would play a short film like “The Crippler” before every movie, and then turn on the lights and collect donations from the crowd. It was incredibly effective. The March of Dimes also introduced us to the concept of the poster child, one of the most persuasive fundraising strategies of all time. Collection receptacles, in the form of little iron lungs, were placed at cash registers everywhere. Wooten said that the small donations coming from almost every American gave each person a stake in beating polio. I like that one year the March of Dimes national campaign was launched from the community of Dime Box, Texas, about 70 miles east of Austin. How’s that for creative marketing! When World War II broke out, the March of Dimes feared that donations would dry up. However, FDR made beating polio part of the war effort. He said on a radio address: “The fight against [polio] is a fight to the finish, and the terms are unconditional surrender.” Big money entered the fight as well. Texas’ great oilmen gave millions to build hospitals, treatment facilities and fund research. Two of the greatest contributors were oil magnate Hugh Roy Cullen and politician Jesse Jones, both historically among Texas’ most generous philanthropists. Great institutions in Texas like the Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children and the Gonzalez Warm Springs Rehab Hospital for Crippled Children were among the best in the country, as was the Jefferson Davis Hospital in Houston. A fascinating side note is that these hospitals were also among the first institutions to be fully integrated, accepting all children on equal terms, regardless of race, religion or creed. Wooten noted that the children took to integration beautifully and became each other’s best therapy. Doctors found that putting them together helped them function as a team against the disease, cheering each other on against a common enemy. You know the rest of the story: Dr. Jonas Salk, funded by the March of Dimes, discovered the first vaccine for the virus in the early 1950s, and rather than getting a patent and becoming an instant billionaire, he made a gift of his vaccine to all humanity.
5 minutes | 10 months ago
Jim Bowie: Timeless Influencer
A relatively new phenomenon in modern society is the rise of the influencer, a person on social media who is skilled at persuading followers to buy things. Some are influencers by design and some are accidental influencers, finding without trying that they have attracted an army of imitators. I wondered how many of these now popular influencers, like Kylie Jenner or Selena Gomez, will have any influential prowess in 200 years? How many will have the lasting magic of Jim Bowie? Many people think that Jim Bowie was made famous by defending the Alamo. He was, in truth, already quite famous nearly ten years before he gave his life for Texas freedom. He was famous as a knife-fighter, knife-designer, frontiersman, and all-round, world-class badass. He was truly a man’s man by any standard. His world-renowned Bowie knife was probably first made at the direction of his own brother, Rezin. But the classic design came from Jim in subsequent versions that had his modifications. Jim used his brother’s version in a bloody skirmish called the Sandbar Fight. Jim was nearly killed by two assailants who both shot him. One endeavored to finish him off by stabbing him with a cane sword, but the sword bent when it hit Jim’s sternum, and so it gave Jim a moment to spring upon his attacker with his huge knife. He killed him instantly. He then badly wounded the second assailant who only survived by fleeing as fast as his injuries allowed him to run. You see, in those days you wanted to take a knife to a gun fight because guns were notoriously unreliable. Bowie miraculously survived and the account of the Sandbar Fight, thanks to a journalist who witnessed it, went viral in national papers – even making it to Europe. Jim Bowie and his knife were thus immediately immortalized. What made the knife different was its size. The original was almost a foot long. But the next model, Bowie Knife 2.o, was even longer, and razor sharp on the bottom AND the top. About a third of the top of the knife, the clip point, was honed to a fine edge – so it cut both ways. Its lethality became legendary. The Red River Herald of Natchitoches, Louisiana, would one day write, no doubt hyperbolically, that after the Sandbar Fight, “all the steel in the country, it seemed, was being converted into Bowie knives.” That’s influence! Some later models had false edges on the clip point, which made them look sharp, though they weren’t. This provided advantages in strength to the blade. When Bowie arrived at the Alamo, nine years later, with his notoriety on the rise and his famous knife at his side, even Davy Crockett was impressed. He said the sight of it, “makes you queasy… especially before breakfast.” Bowie’s last stand at the Alamo elevated his fame to the level of a demigod. It was widely claimed, at least what I heard as a kid, that he took out ten Mexican soldiers with his knife in close quarters combat. This is improbable given that Bowie was critically ill from typhoid fever or pneumonia at the time, but a good legend will kill probability any day of the week. Of course, no one can say for certain what happened in those last minutes, and given his reputation for cat-like reflexes mixed with the adrenalin of battle, who can say? I do like what Bowie’s mama said when she learned of his death: “I’ll wager no wounds were found in his back.” After his death, the Bowie knife, in various versions, began to be made by blacksmiths, from the American Southwest to Sheffield, England, where the finest ones were made and exported to America. Texas Rangers carried them. The U.S. Marines had their own version. In popular films, Rambo never left home without his, and neither did Crocodile Dundee. It’s the one he’s holding when he says, “That’s a knife.” And Brad Pitt does some fancy swastika carving with his Bowie Knife in Inglorious Bastards. It’s as famous as the Swiss Army Knife or the Buck Knife. Given the ubiquity of his knife in the world today, nearly 184 years after his death, I’d say Jim Bowie is a greater influencer than any social media star you can name.
6 minutes | a year ago
The Texas Coral Snake – Beautiful and Occasionally Dangerous
Twice in the last three years I’ve seen good sized coral snakes in my yard. Both times I relocated them deep into the woods nearby. Their presence troubles me because there are often young children playing in my yard. If any were bitten by a Texas Coral Snake, though they probably wouldn’t die, they would be critically ill for a couple of days – and the antivenin they would need, if we could get it, would come in at just under 10K a vial. They’d need between 3 and 5 vials – so it would be physically and financially devastating. I showed the kids pictures and told them not to touch or tease them. “Run and tell an adult,” I said. By the way, antivenin and antivenom are synonymous. You can say either, or either, and be correct. No one has died in Texas of a coral snake bite since the antivenin was produced in small amounts in the early 1960s. There was a Florida man who died in 2006, but that was because he didn’t go for help. He died within a few hours of respiratory suffocation. Coral snake venom is a neurotoxin, a cousin of cobra venom. In Texas, one of the most interesting cases occurred back in 1966 when Boy Scout Randy Wooten, was bit by a coral snake near Fort Worth. There wasn’t enough antivenin to treat him locally, but they did find some at a zoo in Louisiana. The Air Force kindly dispatched a fighter jet to rush the antivenin to him. Made the trip in 30 minutes. Saved his life. Tim Cole, a herpetologist who owns the Austin Reptile Service, and who does educational lectures on snakes of all kinds, told me that coral snakes are not dangerous in the sense that they will not get aggressive with you in the wild like rattlers will. They are shy snakes and will seek to get away from you. He doesn’t like the saying “Red on yellow will kill a fellow” because it’s wrong in two ways. One, thanks to antivenin, it is highly unlikely a bite will kill you, and two, there are albinos and black corals that break the rule. He said outside of Texas, in South America, the rule often does not hold up either. His best advice is to never pick them up. Ninety percent of coral snake bites occur when people pick them up. Teresa Shisk-Saling, a licensed veterinary technician who used to work with snakes at Texas A&M’s Vet School, agrees. She told me, “Don’t pick them up. Coral snakes are unpredictable. They are gorgeous snakes but deceptive in their apparent docile nature. They can turn on you quickly. They latch on and won’t let go – chewing on you – to deliver their venom.” And that venom, she said, is 20 times more toxic than rattlesnake venom. The only consolation is that the volume is small. A rattlesnake will inject you with about 800 milligrams (a full hypodermic syringe) of poison in one bite while a coral snake will hit you with only about two percent of that volume. Hope no evil herpetologist is trying to genetically crossbreed the two. Teresa Shisk-Saling is also Founder and Director of the Reptile Hospice Sanctuary of Texas in Snook. She and her husband have enormous real-world experience working with venomous snakes. Rattlers, she says, are the ones to worry about. Indeed, all you have to do is scan down the CDC records of snake bite deaths in the U.S. over the last hundred years and see that rattlesnakes are responsible for 90 percent of them. Even with that record, you’re still more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than a strike by a venomous snake. Of the 8-thousand snake bites in the U.S. each year, only about 20 are from coral snakes, and some of those are dry bites. The story of how coral snake antivenin was developed is astonishing. It took Bill Haast, a leading expert on antivenins, 69-thousand milkings of coral snakes to get enough venom to create an antivenin, which was one pint. Wyeth Labs then they took a diluted version of that venom and injected it into horses. The horses weren’t harmed. A few weeks later, they harvested the antibodies from the horses and produced coral snake antivenin. Teresa Shisk-Saling informed me that the last of the coral snake antivenin will expire this year. Wyeth has no plans to make more. It’s not cost effective. So, I guess if you are going to get bitten by a coral snake, this is the year to do it. A quick note about Bill Haast, America’s most famous snake man. He injected himself with enough snake venom to become immune to poisonous bites. He was walking, human antivenin. His blood was so full of antibodies that he saved over 20 snake bite victims in his life by just giving them blood transfusions. Let us return now to the handy rhyme: “Red against yellow will kill a fellow; red against black, venom lack” or “friend of Jack.” Some anonymous herpetologist suggested a new version: “Roses and red, violets are blue: leave the damn snake alone.”
5 minutes | a year ago
Love Letter to Scarlett
Two years ago I introduced you to my then 3-year-old daughter, Scarlett. My Valentine. She was a late arrival in my life and particularly special because I grew up with all boys and had only boys, until she came along. She’s introduced me, for the first time, to the wonderful world of little girls. Scarlett’s now 5 and I’m 65. She likes the symmetry of that. She tells perfect strangers, at random, “I’m five and he’s 65.” I’ve taken to telling her that she’s my favorite 5-year-old daughter. She caught on recently and said, “You’re my favorite 65-year-old father.” The tables have turned. As with all five-year-olds, her humor is maturing. She tells me jokes: “What do you call a fly with no wings? A walk.” She was tutored by Alexa, no doubt. She’s accidentally funny, too. She asked, “Dada, you go to the university and they just give you money for talking all the time?” Yes. Fairly accurate, actually. She also asks those Einsteinian questions: “Dada, what would happen if there was no friction in the whole world?” We’d have a happier planet? Here’s another tough one about grammar: “If mouses are mice how come rats aren’t rice?” “I don’t know,” I tell her. “Go ask your mother.” That’s my default response for her toughest questions. When she got in the back of our closet and asked, “How do you have Santa’s wrapping paper in your closet?” I said, again, “Ask your mother.” Sometimes she surprises me with her spontaneous observations. She says, “Did you know that if I put gobs of your shaving cream into slime it makes it slimier?” No, but that’s handy information. She surprised me also when she asked if I got a splinter when I fell down the steps and broke my leg. I said “no.” She said, “That’s good because those splinters really hurt.” Like all children her age, she has beautiful daydreams: “Dada, why don’t you get a bicycle with two seats? You can pedal up front and I’ll sit in the back and rest and listen to the birds.” In her room she has an imaginary restaurant that often has imaginary shortages. I’ll order ice cream and she’ll say, “Oh, sorry, the ice cream machine is broken right now.” Just like real world restaurants. She’s not so good at keeping secrets. Her mother returned home from Christmas shopping and Scarlett said, immediately, “I helped dada wrap your present. It’s a purple sweater from Dillard’s.” It reminded me of when she said: “I’m going to give you a surprise birthday party, but don’t tell mama.” I think she forgot who she was not supposed to tell. It’s been a great year watching her grow up. I told her when she turns 6 we could have her birthday party at Chucky Cheese and she said no. “Chucky Cheese is for little kids. Peter Piper is for big kids.” She already has a keen understanding of demographics. She’s sadly had to grow in other ways, too. I told her to put her bike away because someone might steal it. “What is steal?” she asked. I hated to bring that concept into her idyllic world. Mail came for her for the first time. She had never received mail, ever. I asked people to send her letters. She got 15 in one day and this is how she responded. She grabbed all the letters, and with a delightful scream, she ran from the mailbox to the front door saying, “I CAN’T BELIEVE ITTTTTT!!!!” I think she was happy. Scarlett has been in a romantic mood these last months. She wants her mama and me to get married again so she can be a flower girl in a violet dress. She’s been drawing pictures of how she sees the ceremony with her front and center, directing things. I like that she even gives us advice for a good marriage. She says, “Mama, dada is your husband, and dada, mama is your life.” My life – liked that advice a lot. You’re right Scarlett, mama is my life. And so are you, darlin.’ Happy Valentine’s Day.
Terms of Service
Do Not Sell My Personal Information
© Stitcher 2020