Rank #1: Lingo for Gringos: Ten Spanish Words All Anglos Should Know
I call this commentary “Lingo for Gringos” mostly because it rhymes, but it should really be called “Ten Spanish Words all Texans Should Know.”
I’m not talking about the easy words like cerveza, vino, tortilla, taco and baño. And I’m not talking about the common words you say every day that are actually Spanish words – patio, plaza, armadillo, mosquito, etc. I’ve chosen 10 words that are important for their social significance. If you know very little Spanish but at least know these words, you will have a clue as to what is going on around you. Listos? Ready? Here we go.
Aguas means “watch out” or “be careful.” My wife uses it often when children are in danger: “Aguas, aguas,” she says with the same tone of impending doom, whether they are really about to walk off a cliff or could just get gently bumped by the fridge door. The expression has its roots in the cities of long ago when water used to be tossed out the second story windows and walkers below would warn their companions by yelling “aguas.”
Guácala is a slang word, popular throughout Latin America. It means “gross” or “disgusting.” It is also fun to say. It has an onomatopoeic quality that makes the word sound like what it describes. It animates the moment. Guácala, for all that disgusts you. And a true grammarian who just heard me torture the pronunciation of the adjective form for onomatopoeia probably just said it.
Ni modo is two words, but always sounds like one to me. I love this expression. It means “What can you do?” Or “It is out of our hands.” Or “Whatever will be will be.” Ni modo. Someone says, “They’ve changed the computer system at work again.” Ni modo.
N’ombre is not the meaning for “name,” but a word with an apostrophe that is short for “no, hombre.” N’ombre. “No way.” It has many nuances of meanings, but for the most part it expresses surprise, disbelief, or even shock. “Did you know Lisa and Chuy eloped?” N’ombre!
Güey means dude. N’ombre, güey! “It can’t be, dude!” The Big Lebowski would be the ultimate güey. “El Güey aguanta.” “The Dude abides.”
Chisme is gossip or rumor. Good, juicy stories. “Tienes chisme?” “Got any good gossip?” When Facebook was new, I would hear people say, “Facebook es puro chisme,” meaning that private information could easily slip out and travel to all the last places you would want it to go.
Naca or naco. Don’t confuse this with narcos – those who work for cartels. A naca is a girl or a woman who sports unsophisticated tastes or at least less sophisticated than you. She is often, like true rednecks, proud of being authentic. If Jeff Foxworthy spoke Spanish he might do this routine: “If you think Sharpie eyebrows are high-fashion, you might be a naca. And if you think mullets are in – hate to say it – ‘N’ombre, que naco!’”
Sin vergüenza means without shame, or without embarrassment. It is used when someone stuffs her purse with buffet food at the reception. We say, “sin vergüenza.”
Resaca is a hangover. It is a common word in the Rio Grande Valley. It is another name for the oxbow lakes so common there. Just as the oxbow lake is a leftover or hangover from the Rio Grande, resaca is the name for a hangover from the tequila of the night before. “Tengo una resaca horrible.” “I have a horrible hangover.”
Órale is famous for having about 40 different meanings achieved by variations in vocal inflection and situation. Some linguists say it has 820 meanings depending on the tone, time of day, style of hair and what shoes you’re wearing. It is used for enthusiastic affirmation. Someone says “vámonos por una cerveza” and you say, “órale.” It means, “Let’s go ahead,” “absolutely,” “let’s do it,” “hurry up,” “wow,” and dozens of other things. One Texas English equivalent for órale is simply, “there you go.”
So there you have the 10 words that will be helpful to you. I want to say gracias to my gorgeous wife Lupita who has taught me these words and many others I cannot share on radio. But these 10 will serve you well in our increasingly multilingual world.
Soy W. F. Fuerte. Estos son Cuentos de Tejas. Algunos son ciertos.
I’m W.F. Strong. These are Stories From Texas. Some of them are true.
May 31 2017
Rank #2: Samuel Walker: The Real Walker, Texas Ranger
One of the most fascinating Texas Rangers of all time was Samuel Hamilton Walker — no relation, we should say right off the bat, to Chuck Norris’ fictional character Cordell Walker. Many Ranger aficionados rate Sam Walker the second-most-important Texas Ranger of all time, behind Jack Coffee Hays, with whom Walker rangered. Now that’s a dream team.
Samuel Walker arrived in Texas six years after Texas had won its independence. In five more years, in 1847, he would be dead. But in those five years he would defend San Antonio from Mexican forces, invade Mexico four times, escape from a Mexican prison and help design one of the most famous guns in history, the Colt Walker six-shooter.
Walker’s first foray into Mexico was part of the ill-fated Mier expedition, which was for the purpose of punishing Mexico for its illegal incursions into San Antonio. Walker was not yet a Texas Ranger. He was with a group of men who believed they would repay Mexico for their illegal incursions into Texas. His group was attacked by a much larger army of Mexican troops who engaged them in defense of the Mier. 180 Texans were taken as prisoners.
Santa Anna ordered them all shot, but cooler heads in the Mexican government prevailed and a decimation instead: one in 10 would die. The Texans were ordered to draw a bean from a pot. Among the 159 white beans were 17 black ones. Those who got a black bean would be executed on the spot; those who drew white beans would live. Sam Walker got a white bean.
The prisoners were marched 800 miles across Mexico’s brutal deserts. Walker mentioned in his journal of the Mier Expedition that he would not trade Texas for 100 Mexicos. He was however, impressed with the fine architecture he encountered in the churches of San Miguel de Allende, which remains true for the many expatriate Texans who live there today.
Once in the capital, some of the prisoners, including Walker, was imprisoned at Tacubaya, suburb of Mexico City, and some were marched another 100 miles and incarcerated in the infamous Perote Prison.
Walker’s group was forced to do road work, including building a road from Mexico City to Santa Anna´s summer villa, which further enraged Walker. This amounted to a lot of salt in a deep wound, and he nurtured his loathing for Santa Anna — indeed, for all Mexicans — all his life, so much so that his friends called him “mad Walker.”
There is a much-shared myth about Walker’s time imprisoned in Mexico. The story goes that he was ordered to dig a hole for a flagpole and raise the Mexican flag. According to one version of the legend, he put a dime at the bottom of the hole and vowed to return one day, reclaim the dime, and raise the Texas flag. Several years later, the story goes, he retrieved his dime when he returned with American forces to occupy Mexico City. It’s a good story, but probably not true. Walker never mentioned it in his journals. Also, the flagpole in the various versions of the myth is always in Perote Prison, in the state of Vera Cruz, and Walker was never incarcerated there. He was, however, part of Winfield Scott’s invasion force that sacked the prison in 1847, and that may well be where the legend has its origins.
Walker eventually escaped from the Tacubaya prison — a story that would make a good novel in itself — and made it back to Texas. He joined up with Jack Hays and the Texas Rangers in 1844 and fought in many of the most famous Indian battles.
When General Zachary Taylor sent out a call in 1845 for volunteers to scout for his federal troops, Walker immediately signed up. He ran messages through the Mexican lines to keep Fort Texas (soon to be Fort Brown) aware of Taylor´s plans for invading Mexico. Walker led the charge in the battle for Monterrey.
It was after Taylor’s forces had secured Monterrey, in 1846, that Walker took a brief furlough and traveled back east. There he gave Samuel Colt some ideas for improving Colt’s earlier model of his revolver called the Paterson pistol. Colt, in gratitude, named a special, very heavy model of his new six-shooter after Walker.
Walker next joined up with General Winfield Scott’s campaign to pacify Mexico City. Though he was officially made a U.S. soldier, everybody still thought of him as a Texas Ranger and called him Ranger Walker. Scott’s army invaded Mexico at Vera Cruz and advanced from there toward Mexico City. On the way, they sacked Perot Prison, released the prisoners and turned it into a fort for the American forces.
But Walker would not live to make it back to Texas. He was to die a few months later, fighting the army of his old nemesis, Santa Anna, at the town of Huamantla, where Santa Anna had positioned his forces to stop the U.S. troops’ march to rescue the American garrison under siege at Puebla. Walker led his company, which was ahead of the main U.S. force, into battle there. His men fought fiercely until the main force arrived to defeat Santa Anna, but Walker didn´t get to enjoy the victory. He lay dead; his prized Colt Walkers at his side. He was 32. In retaliation, his men went on a wild rampage, sacking, looting and pillaging the town.
Walker’s body was returned to San Antonio; eventually it was interred in the Odd Fellows Cemetery next to the unidentified remains of the defenders of the Alamo.
It’s said that Walker was not a man you would much notice in everyday life. He was of average size, and quiet. But in battle he was a lion. In his Notes of the Mexican War 1846-1848, J. Jacob Oswandel observed of Walker that ‘’war was his element, the bivouac his delight, and the battlefield his playground.”
Walker lived more in his short life than your average ten men live in their long lives combined. He is the Walker, Texas Ranger, that should be most remembered.
Mar 23 2018
Rank #3: 10-and-a-Half Frightening Facts About the Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Originally aired: Oct. 31, 2016.
Texas is number one in a great many things: oil, ranching, rodeo, cotton. But you may be surprised to know that we are also number one in horror. That’s right, our very own charming little low-budget film, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, is considered by many critics to be the best (and most horrifying) horror movie ever made.
At the time of its release in 1974, the famous film critic Rex Reed said that it was the most “terrifying” movie he had ever seen. When the celebrated master of horror, Wes Craven, first saw the movie, he wondered “what kind of Mansonite crazoid” could have produced such a thing. Stephen King praised the movie. He said it had achieved “cataclysmic terror.” And my favorite critique comes from Anton Bitel who said that the “very fact that it was banned in England was a tribute to its artistry.”
In honor of Halloween, I thought I would help you appreciate this hallowed film; here are 10-and-a-half things you may not have known about the film.
1. Ed Gein is the name of the real criminally insane killer who inspired the character of Leatherface. He did not wear a leather mask. What he wore was worse: a mask made of human skin.
2. Ed Gein only killed two people, not dozens. Hardly a massacre. He did not use a chainsaw. He used a gun.
3. Gein did his killing in Wisconsin, not Texas. I know, disappointing right? Wisconsin Chainsaw Massacre just doesn’t have the same poetic ring to it.
4. So where did the chainsaw idea come from? Tobe Hooper, the director, said that he was in a Montgomery Ward store a few days before Christmas. The store was annoyingly crowded with aggressive shoppers. As he stood in front of the chainsaws he had a disturbing epiphany. He realized that if he started up one of those chainsaws the sound alone would part that sea of shoppers giving him a quick path to the exit. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how iconic art is born.
5. One last thing about Gein. He inspired not only Leatherface, but he was also the demented muse for Norman Bates in “Psycho” and Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs”.
6. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, for the actors at least, was that it was filmed in the middle of the scorching Texas summer. You can see the sweat dripping off, even streaming off, the actors. Hooper said everyone suffered mightily because there was no stopping to wait for cooler weather. And even though
some days were well over 100 degrees, they had to press on to get filming done in a month, come hell or high water – and hell is what they got.
7. In his much-praised book, “Chain Saw Confidential”, Gunnar Hansen, who played the character of Leatherface, said that the name of the depraved family in the first film is Slaughter, not Sawyer. If you look above the Coca-Cola sign at the gas station you will see “W. E. Slaughter BBQ.”
8. Hansen also said that the power of the chainsaw myth they created on film persists with such tenacity in Texas that people would not believe him when he said that no such chainsaw crimes ever happened in the state. People would say something like: “No, they happened. My cousin worked on death row over in Huntsville and saw Leatherface himself get the chair.” But this is understandable because the film falsely marketed itself as “based on a true story.”
9. The film cost less than $300,000 to make, and eventually grossed $30 million in the U.S. The movie had its opening in Austin, appropriately, since its director was a University of Texas professor and documentary cameraman. Though it is hard to believe, he tried to keep the gore and violence of the film to a minimum so he could get a “PG” rating. That didn’t work. He got an “R” rating.
10. Horror and humor are allies. The movie even spawned a hilarious Geico ad that has run the last couple of years – the one where four people are running from a killer and debating where to hide. One suggests they take the running car and another says that’s a horrible idea and suggests that they hide behind the chainsaws. Even Leatherface is astounded by their filmic ignorance.
10.5. The film’s gas station is now a kind of bed and breakfast in Bastrop. It’s called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s “Last Chance Gas Station”. You can get BBQ and spend the night in a cozy cabin. Chainsaw alarm clocks are certainly available. I understand the BBQ ain’t half bad. At least the owners are not, like those in the film, focused only on serving their fellow man.
W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.
Oct 16 2019
Rank #4: Top of the Chart Songs about Texas Towns
There are thousands of songs about Texas. For example, all the way over in England, Duran-Duran – the British new wave pop group, dropped a top 20 (#14) song called “Rio” back in ’82.
And you have “All My Ex’s Live In Texas” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “The Road Goes on Forever,” as does the list.
Pat Green sang in “Songs about Texas” – “there’s a song in every town,” implying that there is a song FOR every town in Texas. Probably true, but only a rare few made it to the Billboard top 40.
So I thought it would be interesting to look at Pat Green’s idea with one provision: What are the songs about Texas towns that became bonafide hits? Note these are not about Texas in general, but about specific towns in Texas. I looked at songs after 1960 (when the charts were more reliable) that became hits on either the pop or country charts.
First is “El Paso” by Marty Robbins. His most famous song. It was released in ‘59 and hit number one in January of 1960. And some trivia? The cantina beauty Faleena was named after his 5th grade schoolmate, Fidelina Martinez.
I must also mention Robbins’ “Streets of Laredo,” which was an unofficial hit that same year – unofficial because it was never released as a single, though it received a lot of air time.
Next, chronologically, is “Galveston” sung by Glenn Campbell, which made it to number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969. Jimmy Webb wrote it while sitting on Galveston beach.
“Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?” made it to number 1 on the country charts in 1970, sung by Charley Pride. The song was also made popular by Texan Doug Sahm, who recorded it twice: once in 1973 and again in ‘91 with the Texas Tornadoes.
“China Grove” by the Doobie Brothers was number 15 in 1973, written by Tom Johnston. Got the name subconsciously when the band passed through China Grove, a town of less than a thousand, while on tour, as the lyrics say, “down around San Antone.”
In the same year – 1973 – “La Grange” by ZZ Top. This song only made it to 41 on the Billboard Hot 100, but in Texas it no doubt ranked much, much higher. From the Album “Tres Hombres,” this song put the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Chicken Ranch, on the national map. Made it “Nationwide” in ZZ Top lingo. It’s also number 74 on Rolling Stone’s all time best guitar songs because of Billy Gibbons’ virtuoso performance on a 1955 Fender Stratocaster.
“Luckenbach, Texas” was released in 1977 by Waylon Jennings and made it to #25 on the pop charts and #1 on country charts where it stayed for over a month. Guess the idea of simpler country living was appealing. It made Luckenbach so popular the state had to stop making Luckenbach signs because the theft rate was breaking the budget.
George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning” hit number 4 on the country charts in 1983. Written by Terry Stafford a decade earlier, after going to a rodeo in San Antonio and driving home to Amarillo.
I have to give a tip of the hat to “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.” Though it was released before there were charts, it was a quite a phenomenon in the 1930s and 40s. Written by a moderately successful bandleader and native Texan named Phil Baxter, who spent a few weeks in Dumas. The song was performed by everyone – including Bob Wills and Louis Armstrong. Even the town radio station is named KDDD – for Ding Dong Daddy.
Jul 26 2017
Rank #5: This Is The Scariest Bridge In Texas
There’s more than one Texas bridge that can be especially troubling for those with gephyrophobia – fear of bridges.
The Pecos railroad bridge can certainly give you the willies from the right perspective. The Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge can give you pause if you’re hit with the outer bands of a tropical storm when you’re up on top. Some of those five-stack interchanges in Dallas and Houston can cause a palpitation or two. But in my opinion, the scariest bridge in Texas is the Rainbow Bridge between Port Arthur and Orange, on Texas Highway 73.
The bridge offers the triple threat. You can see it coming from a long way off. It has a steep ascent and descent. And it rises frighteningly high over the water. Those are the things gephyrophobics most dread.
The Rainbow Bridge is scary enough today, with two lanes for one-way traffic, but it used to be much worse. When it was completed in 1938, it was the second-tallest bridge in America, second only to the Golden Gate. It was essentially 20 stories tall. For many decades, drivers had to put up with two thin lanes carrying cars and 18-wheelers in both directions.
As you arrived near the top of the bridge, all you could see was sky in the daytime and the stars at night. You just had to have faith that the pavement would be there waiting for you when you passed over the hump. It was enough to make some folks take a 30-mile detour to avoid the stress. Seems odd that a bridge with such a nice name could cause such fear.
Local driver’s education teachers often made students drive over that bridge on their first day of class. They believed that the best way to conquer a fear was to face it – head on – right away.
Originally, it was called the Port Arthur-Orange Bridge. I personally believed that the Rainbow Bridge name came from Norse mythology wherein the Rainbow Bridge connects heaven and earth. But no. In 1957 the North Port Arthur Lion’s Club had a naming contest and 6-year-old Christy McClintock submitted the winning entry – Rainbow Bridge.
She said it looked like a mechanical rainbow. And it does indeed. If you are ever there towards sunset and see it illuminated in those pink hues of the evening, it does look like a steel rainbow. Christy got a $50 savings bond as her prize. Doesn’t sound like much today, but in 1957, you could have bought 200 Whataburgers with it.
Why was the bridge built so tall, 177 feet of vertical clearance, in that delta region? There was an important ship channel there and they wanted the tallest ship in the navy at the time, the USS Patoka, the be able to pass easily beneath it.
The Rainbow Bridge was more than an engineering marvel. It was also a magnet for teenagers in the night. The high school kids in the area used to climb up into the catwalks. One of those students was destined for worldwide fame. It is said that she used to sit up there high above the moonlit waters of the Neches River and sing in her passionately raw style. I’m sure you’ve heard of her. Janis Joplin? Her biographer, Myra Friedman, said that she would sing up there under the great Texas sky and “scorch the stars.” But that’s a whole ‘nother story. I’m just giving you the abridged version. The pun is free.
The tallest ship in the Navy never did cruise beneath the Rainbow Bridge. Seems a shame – somewhat like a bride having planned a perfect wedding, and the groom never showed.
Apr 05 2017
Rank #6: Pink Cadillacs And Lucky 13: How Mary Kay Ash Built A Billion-Dollar Business
We have had dozens of rags-to-riches stories in Texas. These Horatio Algers had hardscrabble beginnings but built fortunes worth hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars.
But unfortunately – at this point, anyway – most of them have been male. So the women who did it were all the more impressive because they had headwinds to fight that others didn’t. They had higher mountains to climb. Makes me think of Ann Richards’ famous line: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Mary Kay Ash was one of those women.
Mary Kay already had a highly successful career with Stanley Home Products before beginning her empire, but that success was not recognized or rewarded. Twice, she was passed over for promotions in favor of men she had trained. Salt in the wound for sure. So she retired early, at 45, and went home to write an advice book for women in business on how to survive in a world of men. About halfway through that book she had a eureka moment. She realized that she had written a remarkable business plan. So with her husband and $5,000 in savings, she decided to launch Beauty by Mary Kay.
Sadly, just a month before the grand opening, her husband, George Hallenbeck, died. It was then that most all the men in her life – banker, minister, relatives – told her that she should forget about the business idea. Too risky. But she said no. She believed in her concept. It would work.
So on Friday the 13th – September 1963 – with the help of her son Richard, she opened Mary Kay Cosmetics in Dallas. From that day on, Mary Kay considered 13 her lucky number. Now that’s staring down superstition. The Mary Kay World Headquarters is 13 stories tall. It has 13 elevators and Mary Kay’s office is on the 13th floor, where it remains as she left it when she passed away in 2001.
Mary Kay built a company of, by, and for women. She wanted to create a business that would enrich women and help them achieve genuine success, to reap unlimited rewards, and to enjoy meaningful recognition for their excellence. Many women of her time, she said, “had not had any applause since they graduated from high school or college.” She would change that.
Meaningful recognition was not an “atta girl” on the last line of a corporate memo. She wanted women to feel the joy of being recognized and celebrated. She wanted them to have their own businesses, to be independent consultants. And when they were successful, they would be rewarded with loud ovations at corporate conventions, diamond-studded tennis bracelets, all expense paid trips to Paris where they’d stay at the Ritz and be chauffeured to the Louvre, and at home they would drive their own shiny pink Cadillacs.
And if they were in Germany, it would be a pink Mercedes. I made a pitch for Pink Pickup Trucks or Pink Suburbans for the Texas Consultants. They’re thinking about it, but I doubt seriously.
May Kay believed that the best way to empower women was to enrich them. But she wasn’t talking only about money; she meant emotionally and spiritually as well.
Anne Crews, who is a Mary Kay Vice President for public affairs and a board member of the Mary Kay Foundation, told me that when you would sit and talk with Mary Kay, you were the only person she saw. She looked you straight in the eye. It didn’t matter what was going on around her. She never talked to you from behind her desk, but would sit with you on her couch. She was warm and personable and genuine, seeing in you what you perhaps did not see in yourself. Her central belief was that there were unlimited opportunities to reach inward and achieve more.
That is why her corporate symbol was the bumblebee. “The bumblebee is aerodynamically incapable of flight,” she often observed, “but someone forgot to tell the the bumblebee.” This fit with her personal prime directive: “to help women see how great they really were.”
Mary Kay had perhaps an unusual mission statement, for a corporation. It was quite simply Matthew 7:12 – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” She believed that if everyone followed that rule, from top to bottom, in and outside the company, success would certainly follow. She frequently told the Independent beauty consultants to put that rule to work every day with their clients.
So what started small in Dallas, Texas, grew bigger than Dallas. Bigger than Texas. It grew all over the world to over 3 million independent beauty consultants in Russia, China, Norway, Peru – nearly 40 countries – doing over $3.5 billion dollars of business a year. What started small in Texas changed the world. That is why Mary Kay Ash was chosen by Baylor University as the Greatest Female Entrepreneur in U. S. History.
And her work for women has continued since her passing. She established the Mary Kay Foundation in 1996 to work on finding cures for cancers affecting women. The mission, says Anne Crews, has since expanded to prevent violence against women and children. Since 2000, the Mary Kay Foundation has made gifts of nearly $50 million to domestic violence shelters across America, including dozens in Texas.
Mary Kay said that she wanted to live her life so that in the end, people would say “she cared.” Given the phenomenal number of women whose lives she’s enriched, I don’t know how there would be any other conclusion.
Jun 27 2018
Rank #7: The One Musician To Get A Ticker Tape Parade Was A Texan
New York City has held over 200 ticker-tape parades since the first one in 1886, which honored the Statue of Liberty. Lindbergh got a ticker-tape parade for his solo transatlantic flight. Jesse Owens was celebrated for his 4 gold medals with a parade in 1936. Churchill had a blizzard of ticker tape float down on him in 1946. The Apollo 11 moon landing team received a hero’s welcome in ticker-tape in 1969. Of all the people and professions honored in this way over 130 years, only one has been a musician.
You might be thinking: Elvis Presley – “Suspicious Minds” but no, Elvis never got a parade. Or maybe you are thinking Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean”, but no, Michael Jackson never received that honor either. You need to think in a more classical way.
The only musician ever to return to America as a kind of conquering hero was Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn, Jr., a tall, lanky Texan from Kilgore. In 1958, he managed to pull back the iron curtain and thaw the cold war for a few magical weeks. And he didn’t do with a Springfield Rifle or a Sherman tank: he did with a Steinway.
Nigel Cliff, Van Cliburn’s biographer, says that his genius revealed itself early. His mom, Rildia Bee, quite an accomplished pianist herself, taught piano at home. She had just finished with her last pupil of the day and left young Van sitting with him while he practiced his Chopin before going home. She went to fix supper. After fifteen minutes she heard the young student still playing and went back to hurry him home. She was surprised to find 3-year-old Van there playing Chopin by ear. So his mom immediately made him one of her students.
At ten, Van told his mom and dad that his dream was to become a classical pianist. His father said, “Well if you are going to be a pianist, you’re going to be the best.” He built a music room onto their ranch-style home’s garage and furnished it with a Steinway. There, Van Cliburn practiced three to four hours a day and by the time he was 16, he had amassed the ten thousand hours they say is required to turn aptitude into artistry.
Van did have distractions along the way. As he grew well over six feet before high school, the basketball coach came to recruit him. His mom told the coach that Van’s hands were insured for a million dollars. No way he was going to risk them playing basketball.
Van Cliburn was accepted to Juilliard when he was 17. Would have loved to have seen him arrive there and lean his lanky Texas frame against his professor’s door and say, “Howdy, I’m here to study music with y’all.”
He excelled there, too, and was accepted a few years later to compete at the Moscow International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. This event was Russia’s way of showing the world that they not only led technologically, having put Sputnik, mankind’s first satellite, in space six months before, but that they were also culturally superior to the decadent West.
Here is where the Texan entered. He strolled confidently across the stage and shocked the Russians with his mastery of Tchaikovsky. Olga Kern, one of the finest Russian classical pianists alive today, said, “Van Cliburn won because he played in a grand way. Soaring. It was beautiful; the piano was singing. It sounded so new and fresh. It was incredible.” And when she visited his boyhood home in Kilgore years later, she said that she understood where he got that style because East Texas had enormous trees, vast fields, and a natural sublimity that perhaps shaped him.
Van Cliburn had a reception in Moscow that would have been the envy of any rock star. Women swooned. They cried over his powerful and fresh interpretation of Tchaikovsky. They brought flowers to the stage and laid them before the piano. And when the judges believed he had won, they were afraid to award him the victory. So they went to Khrushchev himself and asked if they could declare Van Cliburn the winner. Khrushchev asked, “Did he win? Well, give it to him.”
And so Van Cliburn returned to New York a victorious cultural warrior. He was given a ticker-tape parade like none other – the only one, ever, for a musician. He made the cover of Time Magazine. The headline read: “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”
Apr 19 2017
Rank #8: Might Oughta Talk About Texas Grammar
In Texas we are mighty big on the word “mighty.” Mighty is used as a ubiquitous adjective. Mighty pretty, mighty ugly, mighty expensive, etc. The word “might” (mighty’s cousin) is popular, too. It is used in place of maybe. Instead of saying, “maybe I can help you Sunday,” we say, “I might be able to help you on Sunday.” “Might” works with verbs to give us an impressive menu of options for conditional expressions like might could, might would better, might oughta, might’ve used to, and even the steroidal conditional tense: might woulda had oughta.
Taken out of context they can sound odd and even wrong, but when heard in conversation, they come to life and seem, well, mighty normal to many of us. I want to point out that Texas is a diverse state of varied dialects. Many Texans would never use this folksy grammar, but there are many who prefer it’s adorned utility. And there are many who would never talk this way at work, but slip into these comfortable rhythms when they get home. Some of us are bi-dialectal.
Let’s begin with “might could.” It is often used to answer a question:
“Would you go with me to the movies Friday night?” “Might could.”
“You figure you can fix the starter on my truck?” “Might could.”
“Might would better” has a good deal of appeal. It is used often as a command. You hear it in Western movies:
“Sherriff, you might would better think long and hard ‘fore you pick up that gun.”
Or you can use it as a self-directed, thinking out loud, suggestion:
“Well, I might would better get on to bed. Long day tomorrow.”
“Might would better” is also a future tense conditional verb, something that might be done differently in the near future.
“On second thought, I think they might would better drive on down here Friday night.”
“Tell you what, she might would better just divorce that man.”
“Might oughta” is often used in kind of shaking one’s head over poor choices:
She might oughta thought about those bills before she quit a job without havin’ another.
He might oughta known not to tease a rattlesnake, especially with a short stick.
For an uncertain memory, we have, “might have used to.”
“I might have used to stay there when I was in Dallas, but I can’t say for certain. “
“I’m sure I might have used to know how many feet was in a mile, but now that you ask, I can’t recall.”
And here’s the mighty king of the conditional tense: might woulda had oughta. Linguists call this modal stacking, like verbal legos – just keep piling on verbs to see how high you can stack them. “Might woulda had oughta” is way outside the bounds of standard English.
When my wife, an English prof and proud member of the Grammar Police, hears such verbal anarchy, she wants to call in the swat team. But I find “might woulda had oughta” admirably creative. It’s like watching Lebron James fly to the basket and do a mid-air spin to reverse dunk between two defenders. Magic.
In redneck culture, it’s comfort grammar. Here’s an example:
“They might woulda had oughta sold that house about ten years ago before it fell apart on ‘em.”
“They might woulda had oughta listened to me when I told ‘em not to buy a used pickup that was owned by a teenager.”
The famous southern linguist Jeff Foxworthy has pointed out how useful “used to could” is in Southern speech. He says people ask, “Do you dance?” Some respond: “Used to could.” Even “used to could” is used in modal stacking. “Might have” often precedes it. “You know how to program the TV remote?” “Might have used to could, but not anymore.” See? Saves you from unwanted work. Here’s another instructive example: “Can you tune up my 98 GMC Z-71?” Well, I might have used to could, but mighty doubtful about it now.”
I’m W. F. Strong. These are Stories from Texas. Some of them are mighty true.
Mar 22 2017
Rank #9: Missing Whataburger
What’s the best Whataburger you ever had?
That’s a question a friend of mine likes to ask everybody. Seems a strange question, but in Texas it isn’t. When he first asked me I told him I could not tell him about the best Whataburger I ever had until I first told him about the time I most wanted one.
Many years ago I took a job in Africa for the period of a year. While there, I just couldn’t find much to eat that I liked. I lost about twenty pounds in six months. I was so thin the local Care guys joked that they might have to send me a package.
It was at this point of mild starvation that a friend back in Texas, Don Love, sent me a two-by-three foot poster of a Whataburger. Ten times life size. Hot cheese, mustard and onions cascading seductively down the sides. Food porn. That is exactly what it was.
I think it was the cruelest thing my former friend could have done. There I was in Whataburger-less Africa, staring at that poster every day. He had me Whataburger-dreaming for months.
After a year in the African hinterland, I flew back into DFW. Though it was midnight, I hailed a taxi and said, “Take me to the nearest Whataburger.” I got a double-meat double cheese, with chopped jalapenos. I whatasized the fries and the Coke and chased it all with a chocolate shake and an apple pie.
Now that was the best Whataburger – indeed, the best meal – I ever had.
I am not alone in having such priorities.
Soldiers on leave from posts around the world often go straight to Whataburger when they get home.
I tell you, If the Pentagon would make MRE Whataburgers, it would lift morale.
Some people who live in Whataburger-less states will drive a couple of days to get a Whataburger. They don’t even check into a hotel. They just eat one, take one to go and drive back home. So you see, there are only two kinds of states in America – those who have Whataburger and those who wish they did.
In the Whataburger states, there are connoisseurs who feel that there is a particular restaurant that makes the best Whataburger of all. They will drive 60-70 miles in this Holy Grail-type-quest to get what they feel is the Whataburger of Whataburgers.
Whataburger is a Texan chain, born as a food stand on Ayers Street in Corpus Christi, back in 1950. It was the brainchild of a burger visionary named Harmon Dobson. His goal was simple: in a time of small burgers, he wanted to make one so big it would take two hands to hold it, and so good that with one bite people would say, “What a burger!”
And it was so. When my mom used to take me and my two brothers to Whataburger when we were just little boys, she would first spread newspapers across our laps in the back seat of the cavernous old Buick sedan. Then she would cut the burgers in half and serve them to us that way, one half at a time, so we wouldn’t “make a mess” of her protective plastic seat covers.
Three things I loved about the early Whatsburgers: 1. The triangular buildings that looked like the orange table tents everybody takes as souvenirs today. 2. The smell of burgers and onions that permeated the air within half a block. 3. My mother saying, “If you finish all of that, you can have a shake.”
Today there are 810 Whataburgers across the Orange States of Whataburger Nation, from Arizona to Florida. Texas remains the capital, of course. All of these Whataburgers are open 24/7 – proving every day that everything is bigger and better in Texas.
Oct 18 2017
Rank #10: Texas: The Name Heard ‘Round The World
By W. F. Strong
I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last couple of years contemplating all things Texas inside of Texas. So I thought I would take a look at Texas OUTSIDE of Texas. There is a lot out there.
First, I suspect you’ve heard that in Norway the word “Texas” means something like “crazy.” More like wild and crazy. Let me use it in a sentence as the Norwegians would: “That party last night, after 1AM, turned Texas on us.” I am honored to have Texas utilized that way – describing something that is a bit out of control and rebellious.
In Barcelona, Spain, “Texans” is a common name for blue jeans. People in Barcelona often say, “Let me put on my Texans and I’ll go with you.” In other parts of Spain they refer to jeans as cowboys, but in Barcelona, they get right to the point by simply calling them Texans (Tejanos).
In London and Paris you can visit the sites of the Texas Embassies, which were located in those cities in the early 1840s, when Texas was an independent sovereign country. The legations were just rented spaces so no dedicated structures remain. However, you can still see commemorations of the first embassies (and last ones) for The Republic of Texas. When I first saw those words, “The Republic of Texas,” on an antique gold plaque in London, my heart swelled up bigger’n Dallas. Not that I want Texas to be a Republic again, but I love the fact that we once were. The other site has a carving on the facade of a hotel in Paris, the Hôtel de Vendôme.
Leaving Europe, let’s go way down under to Oz. In Australia, there is a town named Texas. It is in Queensland. Texas, Queensland. It’s true. When you see the road sign that says Texas 15, it is surreal. Not just because you are in Australia, but because the 15 is for kilometers and the sign is on the left side of the road, the side you are driving on. From the look of the landscape, you would swear you’re in west Texas, perhaps near Marfa. It is a good comparison because Texas, Queensland is just a bit smaller than Marfa – only about 1100 people live there. But Texas, Queensland has more water – a river runs through it.
So, how did it get its name? How did the folks there decide to name their town Texas? Well, first of all, there were no immigrants from Texas who gave it that name. That is a common way that such things happen, but not in this case.
They say that back in the 1840s there was a sustained dispute over the land between the McDougall Brothers, who had earlier laid claim to it, and the squatters who took it over in their absence. Seems that the McDougalls went off to look for gold. When they returned, goldless, they had the added insult of finding squatters on their land. The McDougalls were eventually successful at getting their land back, after a few years in the courts. They said it reminded them of the more famous and much longer struggle Texans had endured to secure Texas, which happened halfway around the world, but at roughly the same time. So in honor of their victory, the McDougalls named their little settlement “Texas.”
You already know that everything’s bigger in Texas. As you see from this quick trip around the world, Texas is pretty big outside of Texas, too.
Aug 23 2017
Rank #11: 101 Essential Texas Books
By W. F. Strong
If I have an addiction, it’s definitely books. I read about two books a week and order two more I’m unlikely to ever get to. But I like them on the shelf as backup the way survivalists hoard food supplies. Admittedly, I’m often short of shelves. When you have more books than shelves, you know you’re overdoing it.
I’m the book equivalent of the cat lady. I take in more books than I should. I recently took a pickup load of recyclable metals to a solid waste depot. As I paid the man I noticed he had 20 books on a little shelf outside his office. I said, “Well, you have plenty to read there when things are slow.” He said, “No, I’m not much of a reader but I can’t stand seeing good books go to the dump so I save ’em. These are rescue books for anyone who wants them.” I rescued 5 of the rescue books. To show the extent of my addiction, I also have a massive stash in the cloud, just in case I need a book when traveling or when stuck at the dentist’s office.
Doing some math I figured that if I live to my allotted average age, I figure I have only 2,000 books left to read in my life. And probably only 1500 because I’ll re-read 500 of my favorites, leaving 1500 new books over the next 20 years – out of billions in the world. A sad fraction. So, I must choose well. To borrow from the old dicho, “Life is too short to read bad books.”
So how does one choose well? First, you have recommendations from friends whose taste you trust. As I am into Texana books, I rely also on sites like Texas Booklover on Facebook for suggestions worth my time. But my favorite of all are books about books. Larry McMurtry has an exquisite book called simply Books. It’s truly spellbinding. A similar sort of work that I want to recommend to you today is 101 Essential Texas Books by Glenn Dromgoole and Carlton Stowers, both authors and experts on Texas literature.
Each book in the 101 is tightly summarized. You’ll find your favorites here for sure: All the Pretty Horses, The Time it Never Rained, Lone Star by Fehrenbach, Michener’s Texas, Friday Night Lights, and Lonesome Dove. But you will also find numerous gems you’ve perhaps never come across.
I like that the collection is in genres. You have first-rate works in history, literature – in this case books about books and writing – fiction, people, place, law and order, sports, food and drink, and books for young readers.
Here’s a few I think are lesser known standouts:
Texas Post Office Murals by Philip Parisi is a full color book of 115 photographs of depression era murals painted in Texas Post Offices across the state. They were painted by famous artists like Tom Lea, Xavier Gonzalez, and Jerry Bywaters and were meant to lift the spirits of people going through hard times.
A History of Texas Music by Gary Hartman. Not limited to Country-Western, Hartman covers “German, Czech, Tejano, Cajun, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues.”
100,000 Hearts: A Surgeon’s Memoir by Denton Cooley. It’s an autobiography by one of the world’s best heart surgeons of all time. And I’m not just saying that because one of those 100,000 hearts still beating is mine.
Under the category of “place” you have Goodbye to a River by John Graves, and A.C. Greene’s A Personal Country, as one would expect. The lesser known standout for me is Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains by the Texas Poet Walt McDonald and Texas’ genius photographer Wyman Meinzer. It is a stunning book wherein poems illuminate photographs and photographs animate poems.
Rainwater by Sandra Brown. Sandra Brown is best known for her bestsellers in romance and suspense so this work is a departure for her. Set in a small Texas town during the depression, it has been compared to The Grapes of Wrath because it is the story of a tough woman barely surviving while running a boarding house in the dust bowl.
That’s a quick preview. Check out the 101 Essential Texas Books and you’ll be sure to find many you’ll cherish having on your shelves, or if you’re like me, stacked on your desk or on top of the dining room table, piano, refrigerator, night table, etc.
Nov 13 2019
Rank #12: Sam Houston And Me
By W. F. Strong
A couple of weeks ago I got into an argument with my stairs and I lost. The stairs insisted there were 12 steps and I thought 10 would do. I broke my tibia and fibula. The good news is that I ended up at the bottom of the stairs, conveniently located for the EMS to pick me up and rush me into emergency surgery. I’ll be 97 percent good as new in four months.
As I was lying in recovery at the hospital, I realized that my injury was similar to that which Sam Houston suffered at San Jacinto. Same shattered tibia, inches above the ankle. Of course his was penetrated by a musket ball in battle and mine was penetrated by the hubris of thinking I had the agility of a teenager. Still, the result was much the same, and I thought immediately of my advantages over Sam. I had only to lie there wrapped in the loving arms of morphine and watch the Houston Astros (ironically Sam’s namesake team) play the Nationals. That was all I had to worry about. Sam had to push through the pain of his broken leg and open wound because he had a new Republic to create and protect, an undisciplined army to command, a dictator to keep alive at all costs, and political foes to keep an eye on.
Here are three things of interest to know about Sam’s wound:
First, he ignored it. After the battle was over, though he was suffering great pain and his boot was filled with blood, he met with his commanders to make sure they understood that two Mexican armies were still in the neighborhood within striking distance. Vigilance was essential to securing this newly-won independence. Once confident that all was well for the time being, he said, “Gentlemen, I have been shot. I must go tend to this wound.”
The second interesting thing is that there is a famous painting showing Sam Houston talking to Santa Anna, under a tree while reclined on a rug. His lower right leg is bandaged. The painting was titled, “The Surrender of Santa Anna” by William Henry Huddle. It hangs in the Texas State Capitol in Austin. Beautiful work. Many a fine biographer, influenced by that painting, wrote that Sam’s right leg was broken. But his wound was actually to his left leg. That painting had the power of a photograph, I suppose. It’s a trivial difference, but interesting that the perception lasted so long. It was only in 2002 that Richard Rice discovered an 1853 letter that Sam wrote to his wife in which he said that his left leg still troubled him from the “old San Jacinto wound.”
The third interesting thing is that Sam’s wound at San Jacinto got worse, probably infected – though they didn’t yet know about germs. Sam developed a fever and his doctor wanted to send him to New Orleans for expert treatment. David G. Burnet, then Interim President of Texas, didn’t want to grant him leave. He wanted him to stay with the army, but Sam’s doctor and friends convinced Burnet that he was in danger of dying if he didn’t go. So Burnet relented.
Sam was met in New Orleans like an American hero. He fainted on the docks from his fever. They carried him to the hospital on a stretcher. According to biographer James Haley, when his stretcher passed by a beautiful, violet-eyed 17-year-old there on the docks, she reported that she felt the “eerie sensation of destiny sweep through her.” I guess you have to say young Margaret Lea’s intuition was good. Three years later, when she was twenty and Sam was 48, they were married and eventually had eight children. They had their happily ever after, which may have never happened had he not been wounded at San Jacinto. Cupid works in mysterious ways.
I’m sure Sam thought his wound was a stroke of bad luck that came at the worst time. But the Greek idea of the fates makes sense here. Not all bad luck is truly bad. Sometimes bad luck is just a means of moving you to a better road.
Hopefully that is true for me, too. I would not likely have thought to write this if I hadn’t taken an unfortunate tumble down the stairs in my rush to eat golden brown pancakes one perfect Sunday morning. A convalescence is a terrible thing to waste.
Oct 30 2019
Rank #13: Ranch Words In Urban Life
The other day I was trying to pull out on U.S. Route 281, and the traffic was so steady that I had to wait about three minutes for an opening. As I was waiting, my father’s voice came into my head and said, “Somebody left the gate open down there.”
Dad’s been gone 30 years now, but those sorts of metaphors still live in my head, as they do for a lot of us Texans. We may have mostly moved from farms and ranches to cities, but our language is still peppered with these expressions of pastoral life. As T. K. Whipple, the literary historian pointed out, we live in a world our forefathers created, “but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, what they lived, we dream.” You cannot have the influences of the frontier or country life disappear in just a generation or two. It hangs on in interesting ways, in our myths and in our language.
One place that we can witness it with some vibrancy is in the farm and ranch expressions or metaphors that survive in our digital age. Here are twelve I’ve rounded up for you.
“I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.” It’s used to infer the poor likelihood that a given investment or prediction will come true. “Well, yes, Congress might decide to work together for the greater good, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.”
“To mend fences.” It means to make peace. “You might want to mend fences with Jayden. You’re likely to need his friendship one day.”
“Dig in your heels.” When cowboys were branding calves and roped one, they had to pull hard against them and were told to dig in their heels. Now, the phrase is used for any act of taking a tough stance. “We’re diggin’ in our heels on this contract.” Similar to “sticking to our guns.”
“Take the bull by the horns” is a good one. Face your troubles head on. Yet a similar saying warns against careless assertiveness: “Mess with the bull and you get the horns.” That expression was made particularly popular in classic films like The Breakfast Club and Some Kind of Wonderful.
“Don’t have a cow!” Bart Simpson made it world-famous. Of course, he added “man” at the end. It is about anti-empathy. I can’t validate your over-reaction. The earliest known printed use of “don’t have a cow,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was found in the Denton Record-Chronicle in 1959. The phrase appeared in quoting someone who said, “He’d ‘have a cow’ if he knew I watched 77 Sunset Strip.” Proud it showed up first in Texas.
“Till the cows come home.” That means a long time, long time. It’s almost as bad as waiting for “pigs to fly.” “Until the cows come home,” perhaps originated in the Scottish highlands. They let cows out to wander lush pastures in the spring and it would be a long time before they would make their way home. It also refers to cows coming home to be milked in the early morning hours.
“Maverick” is well-known. It is used to brand someone as a non-conformist. It is named after Samuel Maverick, a Texan who allegedly didn’t brand his cattle. That isn’t the entire truth, but that is what many have come to believe, and so that version of the story has stuck.
“All hat and no cattle” is one of my all-time favorites. I used it recently in a conversation with a teenager and he said he had never heard it before and didn’t know what it meant. I explained that it was similar to “all bark and no bite.” He didn’t get that one either. I guess trying to teach ranch metaphors to a teenager is like “herding cats.” In fairness, I didn’t understand his saying that I seemed “salty” either.
“Riding shotgun.” This started as means of naming the guy who rode on the stagecoach next to the driver, generally holding the shotgun to ward off bandits. It’s still being used 150 years later. Even modern teenagers still yell “I got shotgun!” as they run to the truck.
“Hold your horses.” Just wait a minute. Let’s think about this calmly before we jump right in and regret it. “Hold your horses, Jim. I can’t buy your truck until I talk to my wife, first.” I also like that we still measure engine power in “horses” – 400 horsepower.
“I’m on the fence about it.” Taking that new job in the oil patch in Odessa? Not sure. Still on the fence about that.
I guess the most popular metaphor of all from ranch culture is “BS,” meaning “nonsense.” It’s difficult to accurately trace its origins and attempting to do so leads us into a thicket of art form itself.
I used the word recently while giving a talk in the state Capitol building. I was asked afterward if I thought that was an appropriate term to use in such august surroundings. I said, “I imagine the expression has been used more than a few times here in the legislature, and probably, even more often, impressively illustrated.”
Jan 09 2019
Rank #14: Texas Contractions
Anytime I hear someone say something like this: “Y’all ‘bout fixin’ to head out?” I think it’s highly likely that they are from Texas. You have y’all and fixin’ to in the same sentence and a couple of contractions. We do love our contractions, which, if you don’t recall from your halcyon days of grammar school, are words squeezed together to make shorter ones, with apostrophes standing in for what’s missing.
“Y’all” of course, is our most famous contraction. But we have even extended its usefulness by placing “all” in front of it to form “all y’all.” It is well known that y’all describes two or more and all y’all could mean five or 500. And we even use all y’all possessively as in “y’alls’s.” I heard this sentence at a barbecue two weeks ago: “Y’all need to move all y’alls’s trucks so Carlos can leave.”
Now that y’all have heard this, I know y’all are gonna start wanting to practice your possessives, but try to wait till the lesson is finished. I’ll let you go in two minutes.
We can also use an interesting contraction for something that is owned by at least two people. “Whose dog is this?”
“Oh, that yorkie is our’n.” Our’n is a contraction of our own. It’s our’n. The expression is a bit archaic – on its last legs, so to speak – but still around if you listen carefully.
The king of contractions I believe is y’all’d’ve. It has three apostrophes in it. Three! You have to admire the muscular nature of that contraction. y’all’d’ve. You all would have. And here’s how you use it: “y’all’d’ve loved it if y’all’d’ve come.” Now just stand back and take in the magnificence of that sentence. 12 words reduced to six! That, ladies and gentlemen, is the very soul of linguistic efficiency.
Cousins of y’all’d’ve are she’d’ve and he’d’ve. She would have or he would have. “I figure she’d’ve married him if he wudn’t such a ne’er-do-well.” Or, for a more modern take, “He’d’ve already lost 20 pounds, if he’d’ve stuck with that low carb diet.”
I’m sure you’ve heard of “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve” as a kind of mantra of regret over what might have been. My father was fond of it. It was his way of teaching me that I could not change the past, but the future was quite pliable.
Similar to a contraction is a hybrid word, or as my friend and linguistics professor Lars Hinrichs calls them, portmanteau words. These words are comprised of two words. “tumped” is one such word. “I tumped over my coke.” It is a combination of tipped and dumped – tumped. I don’t say it myself, but it is common in Texas and throughout the South.
“Spanglish” is a portmanteau word. It combines the words Spanish and English to describe the tendency to merge the two languages with expressions like mandar un mail (send an email) or googlear – to google something.
Hangry is a modern portmanteau, combining, of course, hungry and angry. “I’m mighty hangry for a Whataburger.” Certainly a useful word. Chillax, too, is quite in vogue these days.
And for a more Texcentric take on these hybrids we have: “texplain” – to explain Texas to others; “texpatriate” – one who lives outside of Texas but still longs for home; and “texcellent,” which needs no explanation.
That’s our linguistics lesson for today. Y’all’d’ve liked it a lot more if y’all’d’ve been listening instead of repeating everything for your immediate amusement, but that’s okay. As long as all y’all had a good time.
Oct 04 2017
Rank #15: Windmills: A Memory of Spring
When I was fifteen, weighed down by concerns about high school – algebra tests, term papers, girls – there was no better spot in the world to silence the mind than on top of a 35 foot windmill at my uncle’s farm. In the spring, it was heaven up there on that platform. To the north I could see hundreds of black angus cattle dotting the new grass of irrigated pastures, a scene fitting for Van Gogh’s brush. To the south, way south, there were citrus orchards. The southern breeze blew in the sweet smell of orange blossoms. In the brushlands of south Texas, that was the second harbinger of spring.
The first I could see to the west, the new sheen of emerald green covering miles of mesquite. The huisache trees, too, were adding their bright golds to the mix.
Just a few days before it had been a bleak, brown landscape, but overnight, nature turned on her lights and from the platform high above it all, as birds sang with greater enthusiasm, and butterflies fluttered among the bluebonnets far below, I could witness the world being born again.
And the windmill turned and squeaked. I think a windmill squeaking may be the only squeaking in life that is comforting. It’s soothing somehow, perhaps because it is the sound of life itself being pumped from the ground.
We used to keep metal coffee cups on hooks down by the water tank so we could get a fresh drink of water, delivered pure and cold from deep in the earth, whenever we wanted.
I think photographs of windmills are the pictures Texans seem to love most of all. There is something romantic about them. The giant turbines are not loved like windmills, perhaps because they are so enormous they overpower rather than blend with the landscape.
And windmills stand alone, never in groups of twenty of forty. Windmills seem independent and solitary, historically symbolic of the Texas character. They have a unique place in our heritage. They transformed much of the land from arid to vibrant.
This reminds me of a poem by the great cowboy poet, Mike Moutoux. He makes this point about windmills far better than I can.
A FITTING MONUMENT
by Mike Moutoux
In the dry land stands the monument of a dreamer
It is a testament to hope; to years of yearning
Standing tall above the grasses, rocks and scrub oak
Below a cloudless sky and sun so brightly burning
No babbling brooks cross here, just silent sand arroyos
Few linger here at all; fewer still would stake a claim
Only fools and dreamers could love this barren land
It does not suffer fools; dreamers love it just the same
‘Twas the Homestead Act that brought him here to dream and sweat
It was the solitude and grass that it made it feel right
But there were months when precious rains were non-existent
Each cloudless day brought another worried weary night
All that changed when the Aermotor windmill was delivered
The well was dug, the tower raised; each rod and gear in place
The wind blew as always, but now it turned a shiny fan
And both the cowman’s heart and dreams begin to race
The cowman would talk about that day for years to come
How the blades spun, the rods creaked, how he paced and paced
And then water, precious water, poured from pipe to trough
Giving hope a thing a man could actually taste
Within weeks trails appeared around the water trough
As thirsty critters, one by one, found the water there of course
Not just cows, but the antelope, fox and deer drank there
The tower, a beacon, led them to their water source
The story of the dreamer is old but not forgotten
The tower still stands although its working years are spent
A testament to one man’s hope and all those years of yearning
For a dreamer and cowman, a most fitting monument.
For more of Mike Moutoux’s work, go to www.mikemoutoux.com
Mar 07 2018
Rank #16: 6 Reasons Texas Is Better Than Alaska
There’s a popular bumper sticker up there in Alaska that says, “Making Texans Mad Since 1959.” That’s loosely translated — otherwise I couldn’t say it on the radio
The allusion is, of course, to the fact that when Alaska became a state, Texas immediately got demoted to second biggest state.
No doubt Alaska is geographically more than twice the size of Texas, but we still own the bragging rights on many fronts.
Texans are still fond of pointing out that if we melted all the ice and snow up there Texas would still be bigger.
Texas reigned as the biggest state in the the union for 104 years. Alaska has a long way to go to take the title from us, about 50 years yet.
We are certainly bigger in population, forty times bigger.
You know that famous pipeline they have up there? Guess who built it? Texans did. And Okies, too. There are no exact figures but we have proof in Alaskan folklore. An Alaskan saying back when the pipeline was being built, was this: “Happiness is 10,000 Okies pickin’ up a Texan under each arm and headin’ South.” Don’t know why they would have that attitude, we were just making them rich.
Alaska is a big oil producer, sure. But Texas is still a much larger producer of oil and gas and has far greater reserves: three times as much oil as Alaska and ten times as much natural gas. Texas remains number one in oil in the U.S. and would be the sixth largest oil country in the world if she were on her own. They don’t call us Saudi Texas for nothing.
Final thing, and I think of this as a kind of slam dunk fact. Alaska would not be a state if Texas had not made it one. It’s true. Alaska’s bid for statehood had languished for years, back in the forties and fifties. And was going nowhere until Senator Lyndon Johnson and Speaker Sam Rayburn threw their weight behind Alaska’s statehood ambitions. That was the tipping point. Once those two got behind it, Alaska was fast-tracked to statehood. You might say Texas was big enough to let them be bigger.
Given all that we have done for Alaska, I think they could use a bumper sticker I’ve designed. It looks like a Texas flag and says: ” Thanks Y’all.”
Nov 04 2015
Rank #17: Bass Boat Heroes
Every destructive hurricane is remembered in a unique way. Katrina is largely remembered for levees breaking and the paralyzing chaos that followed. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, whose anniversary is in two days, is remembered for a horrific number – 6-thousand. 6-thousand people perished. It was the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. I believe that Hurricane Harvey will be remembered for the greatest amount of rain ever to fall in one place in the U.S. within 24 hours, but I believe it will also be remembered for the bass boat heroes.
Someone on social media suggested that we should build a monument to “two regular guys in a bass boat.” And that idea has been seconded by tens of thousands.
Even from where I live in deep south Texas, I saw dozens of trucks pulling boats, headed north on Highway 77: bass boats, swamp boats, pontoons, skiffs and navy seal type zodiacs. The call went out for help across the state and Texans answered. They came from San Antonio and San Angelo and Austin, Waco, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Tyler, even I understand, from the Panhandle and El Paso. From every nook and cranny of the state, they rolled toward the floods, spontaneous convoys racing to the coast. It was magnificent to see them: Texas flags bent by speed and proudly waving from their trucks and trailers, a genuine cavalry to the rescue. These men and women didn’t ask for money or mileage or payback of any kind. They didn’t ask for whom the bell tolled, they just concluded, it tolls for me – and away they went.
I talked to a man at a station near my house who was filling up his slightly lifted GMC. He was pulling a 15-foot bass boat with a trolling motor. I asked him if he was going to Houston. He said, “My brother and me thought we might head up that way. I mean I got a truck and a boat. Might be of help to somebody. I know they’d do it for us if things were turned around.”
And they didn’t just come from Texas. The Cajun Navy, as they are so beautifully named, came from Louisiana in large numbers, as did others from Arkansas and Oklahoma, and no doubt other states too.
A National Guard Officer said on the Weather Channel: “These people are showing up with air boats, swamp boats, and jet skis. They go out and rescue people and bring them to us. I don’t know where these people are coming from, but it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”
An old friend of mine, Matt Carr, from Central Texas, answered the call. He said: “Driving into Houston in the storm was surreal. I-10, 290, and 610 had no cars on them. It was apocalyptic. Fields full of water, cows huddling on tiny islands above rising water. We felt all alone. We got there in a window of time before the world arrived again.”
He said the police were busy with calls and told the rescuers they were free to go where they pleased and help in any way they could. So they did. He said once the National Guard arrived, the process became more efficient. “It felt like a Texas version of Dunkirk,” he said, “less dangerous, but the same spirit.”
Matt rescued a 90-year-old woman named Hazel. She didn’t have anyone in her life. She was alone. She didn’t want to leave her house, but she was cold. Matt convinced her to go. He said, “I took her to a bus so they could take her to a shelter. She was scared. So I knelt down next to her in the aisle on the bus and we said a prayer together. And then I got back to work.”
Matt’s was one of thousands of similar stories from that night. Here’s another from my buddy Manny Fernandez who is the Houston Bureau chief for the New York Times. He was out riding along with many of these rescuers, impressed with their instinct for navigating what was now an urban bay. And it was dark except for helmet headlamps. Dangerous work. Manny asked many of these rescuers why they had come so far to take these risks. He said that almost to a person, they answered, with three words: “This is Texas.”
Sep 06 2017
Rank #18: ‘You May All Go to Hell’ And 9 More Great Texas Quotes
1. “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.” Davy Crockett said this angrily after losing his Tennessee bid for the U.S. Congress.
I think he really said, “Y’all can go to hell,” but grammatical purity likely corrupted the original transcription.
2. Mary Lasswell, who grew up in Brownsville and wrote the famous book “I’ll Take Texas” said:
“I am forced to conclude that God made Texas on his day off, for pure entertainment, just to prove that all that diversity could be crammed into one section of earth by a really top hand.”
3. “If a man’s from Texas, he’ll tell you. If not, why embarrass him by asking.” John Gunther is credited with this. Many people think Gunther was a big gruff Texas oil man. He wasn’t. He was a famous journalist who published the quote in his incredible, best-selling book “Inside U.S.A.”
4. Speaking to the size of Texas, Wallace O. Chariton, said:
“In the covered wagon days, if a baby was born in Texarkana while the family was crossing into the Lone Star State, by the time they reached El Paso, the baby would be in the third grade.”
Please don’t do the math on this and write to tell me that at ten miles a day this would only take three months. We don’t need math purists debating Texas hyperbole.
5. Conrad Hilton bought his very first hotel in Cisco, and so really launched his empire in Texas. He said:
“There’s a vastness here and I believe that the people who are born here breathe that vastness into their soul. They dream big dreams and think big thoughts, because there is nothing to hem them in.”
6. Where does this attitude come from? Larry McMurtry thinks it comes from the influence of the old Texas frontier. McMurtry said:
“What my whole body of work says… is that Texans spent so long getting past the frontier experience because that experience is so overwhelmingly powerful. Imagine yourself as a small hopeful immigrant family, alone on the Staked Plains, with the Comanche and the Kiowa still on the loose. The power of such experience will not sift out of the descendants of that venturer in one generation and produce Middletown. Elements of that primal venturing will surely inform several generations.”
In more accessible language, McMurtry also famously said: “Only a rank degenerate would drive 1,500 miles across Texas without eating a chicken fried steak.”
7. James Michener, who wrote the 1985 blockbuster, TEXAS, explained the state as follows:
“What you Northerners never appreciate… is that Texas is so big that you can live your life within its limits and never give a damn about what anyone in Boston or San Francisco thinks… A writer can build a perfectly satisfactory reputation in Texas and he doesn’t give a damn about what critics in Kalamazoo think. His universe is big enough to gratify any ambition. Same with businessmen. Same with newspapers. Same with everything.”
8. George W. Bush reflected poignantly about his years in West Texas:
“Those were comfortable, carefree years. The word I’d use now is idyllic. On Friday nights, we cheered on the Bulldogs of Midland High. On Sunday mornings, we went to church. Nobody locked their doors. Years later, when I would speak about the American Dream, it was Midland I had in mind.”
9. Here’s perhaps my favorite quote of all. It is by John Steinbeck, from his memoir “Travels With Charley: In Search of America.”
“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.”
10, And we must hear from Molly Ivins, too: “I think provincialism is an endemic characteristic with mankind. I think everyone everywhere is provincial. But it is particularly striking with Texans, and we tend to be very Tex-centric.”
It is the summative meaning of all these quotes that gives power to our most popular modern slogan: “Don’t Mess with Texas.”
Jun 01 2016
Rank #19: The Queen of King Ranch
When Richard King, the founder of the King Ranch, was on his deathbed, he told his wife, Henrietta Chamberlain King “Don’t let any of that land get away from you.” At the time of his death in 1885, King’s famous ranch consisted of about half a million acres. He had amassed this land on the advice of Robert E. Lee, who told him that he should buy all the land in the wild horse desert that he could get hold of, and never sell it. Richard King followed this principle faithfully his entire life.
His wife Henrietta did not let him down. She ruled this ranch kingdom for about 10 years longer – in total – than her husband did, more than doubling the size of the ranch in her time.
But it wasn’t easy. She had to break her husband’s golden rule soon after he died. Henrietta King not only inherited half a million acres, but also half a million dollars of debt. She had to sell some of the land to bring the King Ranch back to life. Under Henrietta King’s firm but fair hand – and with the expert help of her son-in-law, Robert Kleberg – the ranch was soon growing again; and then flourishing. By the turn of the century, the King Ranch was trying new techniques in irrigation, range grasses and cattle breeding. By the 1920s they’d created their signature breed: Santa Gertrudis cattle.
Henrietta met Richard King when she was just 18 years old, in Brownsville. She was the quiet daughter of a Presbyterian minister and King was a hard-drinking, rough-around-the-edges, riverboat captain. Sounds like a country-western song. When they married, Henrietta said about her honeymoon: “I doubt it falls to the lot of any a bride to have had so happy a honeymoon … we roamed the broad prairies of the ranch. When I grew tired, my husband would spread a Mexican blanket for me and I would take my siesta under the shade of a mesquite tree.”
This rough-hewn honeymoon she so praised showed that she was made of the right stuff to help build a ranch out of inhospitable land and a brutal climate. Indeed, she was so tough, it’s said that when bandits wanted to attack the ranch house, they waited for Mr. King to be around because he could be bargained with.
Henrietta faithfully reigned over the ranch for 70 years. But her influence extended well beyond the King Ranch boundaries.
It has been said that the work of a philanthropist is like that of an old person who plants trees. They plant even though they know they will never live to stand in their shade. And so it goes that the institutions Henrietta King started are far more important today than they were in her time.
She donated land that would become Texas A&M University in Kingsville. She constructed the city’s public high school. She donated land and money to build Spohn Hospital, which is today Corpus Christi’s largest, most advanced hospital.
Mark Twain once said that you can tell the importance of a person by the size and nature of their funeral. When Henrietta King died at the age of 92, 200 vaqueros on horseback escorted her funeral carriage to the cemetery. Some of them had ridden two days across the ranch to get there in time. These men were known as Kinenos, the King’s men.
At her grave, the 200 vaqueros, one by one, circled her casket as it was lowered, and they tipped their hats in reverence for the great lady, “La Reina” – the queen of the King Ranch. Then they galloped on back to their duties on the ranch, which now consisted of 1.2 million acres.
Nov 16 2016
Rank #20: Dr Pepper: The Story of Texas’ Favorite Soft Drink
My favorite snack as a teenager was a Dr Pepper with salty peanuts. You remember: you pour the peanuts into the Dr Pepper and let them float around and season the drink. Didn’t get much better than that.
Dr Pepper is the oldest soft drink in America. Older than Coca-Cola, in fact, by a full year. It was created in 1885 by a pharmacist, Charles Alderton, in Waco, Texas. And its original name was Waco – it was served there at the soda fountain in the drugstore. The drink was an instant hit; customers would sit down on one of those old spinning stools and say, “Shoot me a Waco.”
As its popularity exploded, the makers couldn’t keep up supplying the syrup to all the other drug stores that wanted it, so a company was formed, and a new name created.
The name Dr Pepper was suggested by Wade Morrison, the owner of the drugstore. The story goes that Morrison supposedly named it after his would-be father-in-law back in Virginia, a man he wanted to impress because he was in love with his daughter.
Morrison never did get the girl, but I bet the old man Pepper regretted that rejection when Dr Pepper became a national sensation and made the not-good-enough Morrison quite rich. Maybe the saddest person in this whole affair was Charles Alderton – the pharmacist who created Dr Pepper. He simply gave away the recipe because he was more interested in medicine than marketing.
Dr Pepper’s formula is held in two separate bank vaults in Dallas. Each vault has half of the formula and no one person knows the entire secret. Coca-Cola has similar safeguards.
Contrary to soda pop mythology, Dr Pepper is not made of prune juice, nor does it have any part prune juice in it. It is made of a blend of fruit extracts. But the blend of flavors results in a uniqueness that makes many people swear that Diet Dr Pepper is the most undiety tasting soft drink in existence. And let’s not forget Dublin Dr Pepper, now sadly out of production, but once regarded as the finest Pepper of all, thanks to Imperial pure cane sugar.
Dr Pepper Poker – a version of poker where tens, twos, and fours are wild – takes its concept from the numbers 10, 2, and 4 that used to be on every Dr Pepper bottle. The label encouraged you to have three Dr Peppers a day at 10, 2, and 4 to keep you, well… peppy.
A poker purist will not play Dr Pepper. But I like it. It is the only time I have had four a kind, legitimately.
W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.
Oct 19 2016