Rank #1: Remembering The Summers Of My Youth
Now that we’re in the dog days of summer, I’ve been thinking about the long summers of my youth. We had longer summers then. It’s not just an idealized memory. Schools would dismiss us in late May and we wouldn’t return until September 2nd or so, generally the day following Labor Day.
What I remember distinctly about those summers of more than 50 years ago, is that I was a free range kid. My mom opened the gate in the morning for me and my brothers and we’d wander out into the great pastures of our neighborhood and entire town – yes, it was a small town – unsupervised. We’d roam all over with all the other kids, also free range, and play games and sometimes watch TV at other kids’ houses until we were chased out by a stern mom who’d tell us to “get- on-outside and play.”
I say we were unsupervised, but not really. The whole town had its arms around us and made sure we behaved, and were safe.
About noon we’d meander back home and have dinner. That is what we called lunch then. The noon meal was dinner. Then we’d have a nap, with cicadas humming loudly, and go back out until supper time, about seven. We’d eat supper quickly so we could get back out to our friends where we’d play until well after dark, enjoying games like “kick-the-can” and “red light.”
The grown-ups were out there with us, sitting in lawn chairs, making homemade ice cream, listening to baseball games on small transistor radios and gazing up into the stars, marveling at the tech-savvy age they lived in, where they could see NASA satellites passing over.
Yes, as kids, we were quite free. I remember one day me and my brothers were on our bikes with backpacks on, ready to head out and my father said, “Where are you boys going?”
We said, “To the lake.”
He said, “To that one five miles east of town?”
“Yes, sir,” we said.
“That one out there on the FM road with all the 18 wheeler traffic?”
“That one you have to cross the rattlesnake field to get to?”
“Yes, sir,” we admitted.
“All right. Just be back by dark or your momma will worry,” he said.
I like that my Dad would never admit to worrying himself. He just worried about my mom worrying.
He was also big on the idea that boyhood shaped and toughened the man that the boy would become.
Once I asked him for a ride over to my friend Gonzalo’s house.
He said, “It’s only a mile over there. Walk. It’ll do you good.”
I said, “But it’s about 100 degrees right now.”
He said, “Wear a hat.”
Summers sure are different for kids now. The world is no doubt more dangerous now than it was then.
But no matter the reasons I’m grateful for the boyhood I had, rather than these modern ones, with kids so often cooped up inside with high tech games. To be honest, though, I do have a tiny bit of cross-generational tech envy in me. I know that when I was 15 I would have loved to have had an Xbox. Still, I know for sure that I wouldn’t trade my free-range summers for all the terabytes of RAM in the world.
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.
Rank #3: 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.
Rank #4: 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.
Rank #5: What It Means to Be a Texas Gentleman
One of my favorite, but now largely unknown speakers in American history was Robert Green Ingersoll. Redwater, Texas was originally named Ingersoll – after him. He was a philosopher and a popular intellectual, the most sought after orator of his time. He left us many fine proverbs. One of my favorites is this:
“The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.”
Being graceful in victory is easy, but in defeat, to be dignified and composed and still hopeful for a better day, requires deep character.
As the country prepares to make the transition from one president to another, I’m reminded of an example of this kind of rare decency in defeat. It comes from George H. W. Bush. In 1992, he had just lost a bruising presidential campaign to a much younger, far less experienced Bill Clinton. It must have been excruciatingly painful for Mr. Bush. After all, it was said that he had the longest resume in the Western World. How could he lose to someone who was, at least on paper, less qualified for the job? But he accepted his defeat with grace.
As these fine Texans, George and Barbara, were moving out of the White House and the Clintons were soon to move in, George left a letter for Bill on the Oval Office desk. It has received a good deal of attention online over the past months, but it is a remarkable testimony to good character and it certainly deserves a re-reading. The letter is dated January 20, 1993. It says:
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
Good Luck – George
Texans have long valued a true southern gentleman. If anyone ever needs a clear definition of what that means, have them read this letter from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton.
Rank #6: ‘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.”
Rank #7: Three Texas Pride Stories
I’ve been sad lately noticing how the oral tradition seems to be dying. Twenty years ago friends would often come up to me on the street and say, “Hey, I got a story for you.” But now they just come up to me and hold out their phone and say, “Seen this?” And laugh. Not the same.
Today I thought I’d do what I can to fight this trend. I’m going tell you three short stories – or jokes – that showcase our Texas pride. You can even pass them on, if you think them worthy.
The first one I heard from my father when I was about 10. It was my first exposure to this genre – and I loved it. It went like this:
“A man from Kentucky was talking to a Texan and bragging about all the gold they had in Fort Knox. The Kentuckian said, “You know we have enough gold in Fort Knox to build a wall of solid gold, six foot high, all the way around Texas?”
The Texan said, “Is that so? Tell you what, you go ahead and build your wall – and if we like – we’ll buy it.”
The next story comes from John Gunther’s book, “Inside U.S.A.” You remember Gunther, who was famous for the quote, “If a man’s from Texas, he’ll tell you. If he’s not, why embarrass him by asking?”
Gunther says that a man from Boston was visiting a friend in Texas. The Bostonian was tired from traveling and went to bed early. As he pulled back the blankets, he was shocked to find a 12-inch lobster waiting for him. Rather than let the Texan get the better of him with this practical joke, he picked up the lobster and took it into the living room where his friend was reading the paper.
He held up the lobster and said, “You sure do have big bed bugs in Texas.”
The Texan peered up over the paper, squinted at the lobster and said, “Well, must be a young ’un.”
The last story, truly a Texas classic from the 60s, concerns a prideful Texan who died and went to Heaven. Saint Peter was giving him an orientation tour of Heaven, to get him acquainted with beauties of the place.
He first showed him some snow-covered peaks reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, and the Texan said, “Well, they are nice if you like your mountains all covered in snow that way. I like mine with a light dusting now and then and otherwise hot and dry like we have ‘em in Big Bend.”
Next, Saint Peter took him by the elbow and flew him up to a peak overlooking a gorgeous mountain river. He said, “You ever seen a more beautiful blue than that?” The Texan said, “No, but you want to see the most beautiful turquoise river ever, you need to see the Devil’s River in West Texas. Sorry to mention him, but that is the name of it. And don’t get me started on the Guadalupe for beauty and beer that was…”
Saint Peter interrupted him and pointed to the Alpine forest waving in the gentle mountain breeze before them. The Texan said, “Impressive, but nothing can steal my heart away from the Piney Woods of East Texas. You ever seen the Big Thicket?”
Exasperated, Saint Peter flew the Texan over to the very edge of Heaven and had him look over the side. Far, far below there was dense fire, and smoke as far as he could see. Saint Peter said, in an almost threatening tone, “What do you think of that?”
The Texan said, “That is impressive and clearly out of control, but I tell you what, we got some ol’ boys down in Houston who can put that out for ya.”
Rank #8: Here’s Your Texas-Themed Reading List for 2017
I’m not an expert on many things, but when it comes to judging the quality of Texas literature, or Texana as it is called, I am as confident as a bronc rider still upright at seven seconds. That last second of the eight is reserved for humility. Chance needs scant time to have one spittin’ up dirt.
So I decided I would take my chances and prepare a list of good Texas books you might want to tackle in the coming year. Each book is tied to the month that will perhaps enhance your reading of it.
January – “The Tacos of Texas”
This has been a best-seller in Texas (and beyond) this past year. By January 3 your New Year’s resolutions will be somewhat less resolute. When that time comes, you will want tacos. And the tacos will give you strength for a fine year of reading ahead.
February – “The Son”
To my mind, this is the best Texas novel since Lonesome Dove. It was first runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and the miniseries will air on AMC in 2017 – starring Pierce Brosnan. So binge read it first so you can binge watch it later. And you will have the advantage of saying, somewhat snobbishly, “I read the book and the book is way better.”
March – “Miles and Miles of Texas”
Just in time for your Spring Break trip is this magnificent book on the history of Texas roads and how they got built. The original mission of the Texas Highway Department was to “get the farmer out of the mud.” Obviously, they went far beyond that goal to succeed in building a state of superhighways. Let’s not talk about I-35.
April – “Lonesome Dove”
Cattle drives in Texas typically began in the spring. So this is a good time to read or re-read Lonesome Dove. This is the Iliad of Texas. If you haven’t read this Pulitzer Prize winning literary treasure, it’s time. Gus and Call are waiting for you. Let’s “head ‘em up and move ‘em out.”
May – “Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde”
He killed them in May actually. Hollywood made Hamer out to be the bad guy, but as is often the case, they were seduced by myth and got it wrong. I like what the Dallas Morning News says about this book: “Frank Hamer’s is perhaps the last great story of the American West to be told… Well, Hollywood? Now you have the book, so go make the movie.”
June -“Issac’s Storm”
For the start of Hurricane season, read Isaac’s Storm, the best-selling history of the killer hurricane that devastated Galveston in 1906. The Washington Post says that Erik Larson’s book is, “Gripping … the Jaws of hurricane yarns.”
July – “Empire of the Summer Moon”
This book tells the story of the last years of the Comanche Nation and how Quanah Parker and his warriors were never militarily defeated. The New York Times says it “will leave blood and dust on your jeans.”
August – “The Time it Never Rained”
The story of the West Texas rancher, Charlie Flagg, who survived the greatest drought in modern Texas history.
September – “Friday Night Lights”
For the beginning of football season, read the book that launched the popular series. And if you have read it already, go for “The Last Picture Show” instead, which is also anchored in Texas football culture.
October – “All the Pretty Horses”
Once you’re in, go ahead and read the whole border trilogy.
November – “Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans”
As the days shorten and the nights lengthen, sit by the fire and read T.R. Fehrenbach’s take on Texas history.
December – “The Big Rich”
As you begin worrying about presents and money, it is an ideal time to read the rags to riches stories of Texas oil men like H.L. Hunt and Roy Cullen. These were men who were, for their time, among the absolute richest in the world. They knew how to spend money and to play on a scale few have ever known. It will inspire your Christmas shopping, make you want to play poker for oil leases, buy sprawling ranches, and purchase your own Texas island.
There’s not a lot of romance in these books. There is a lot of tough love, though. And that’s good. If you don’t get tough love early in life it’s hard to find lasting love later.
So there you go. Print this out and put it on the fridge. Happy reading.
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.
Rank #9: Homesick for Texas: Songs & Tributes to the Lone Star State
To my mind, the signature song about longing for Texas is this one:
I wanna go home with the Armadillo;
Good country music from Amarillo and Abilene;
The friendliest people and the prettiest women you’ve ever seen.
That’s “London Homesick Blues” sung by Jerry Jeff Walker and written by Gary P. Nunn.
But there are dozens of songs that make Texpatriates (Texans forced to live outside of Texas a
while) a little misty eyed. Like “Amarillo By Morning” by George Strait:
Amarillo by morning, up from San Antone.
Everything that I’ve got is just what I’ve got on.
When that sun is high in that Texas sky
I’ll be bucking it to county fair.
Amarillo by morning, Amarillo I’ll be there.
And what Texan isn’t moved by these immortal words?
Let’s go to Luckenbach Texas
With Waylon and Willie and the boys
The theme of Texas homesickness is a common theme in our music, our folklore, and our literature.
Did you ever hear the story about the Montana cowboy who died and went to heaven? St. Peter was giving him a tour when the Montanan looked up to see a bunch of cowboys in jail, struggling to get out. The Montanan said to St. Peter: “I’m a little surprised to see a jail in heaven!”
St. Peter said, “Oh that’s not a jail. That’s the Texas Detention Center.”
Montanan said, “Oh I understand. I did some drovin’ with those ole boys. When they get to a new town they can do some damage.”
“That’s not the problem,” said St. Peter. “The problem is they get so homesick they keep tryin’ to sneak out the Pearly Gates to go back to Texas. So we have to keep ‘em locked up a while till they learn to like it here.”
We find the theme in Larry McMurtry’s work, too. In his little masterpiece of a novel, “All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers,” the central character, Danny Deck, is leaving Texas for the first time in his life. He is driving just west of El Paso and about to cross the border when he says:
“It was strange, leaving Texas… It was all behind me, north to south, not lying there exactly, but more like looming there over the car… some genie, some god, towering over the road. I really felt it… I had left without asking permission or earning my freedom. Texas let me go, ominously quiet. It hadn’t gone away. It was there behind me.”
When he returned to Texas after several months, Danny realized what many a traveler has realized – that there is no place like home. He says:
“It was the sky that was Texas, the sky that welcomed me back… The sky was what I had been missing, and seeing it again in its morning brightness made me realize suddenly why I hadn’t been myself for many months. It had such depth and such spaciousness and such incredible compass, it took so much in and circled one with such a tremendous generous space that it was impossible not to feel more intensely with it above you.”
Reminds me of what my brother Redneck Dave once told me. He said, “I reckon everybody everywhere misses their home, but if there was a way to measure the mightiness of missin’, I’d betcha big that Texans would come out pretty much on top.”
I can’t argue with that.
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.
Rank #10: Quanah Parker: A Mother’s Day Story
Quanah Parker was the most feared of the Comanche chiefs on the Texas frontier. He was half white and half Comanche. He was taller and stronger and faster and more clever than any other chief of his time.
The fact that he never lost a battle to soldiers who relentlessly pursued him …
The fact that he was a ghost on the high plains and disappeared into thin air, even as he was chased in the bright Panhandle sun …
The fact that he was devastatingly handsome and could have graced the cover of one of those steamy Western romance novels …
The fact that he was the last Comanche chief to decide on his own, without being defeated militarily, to move to the reservation…
… is not the point of this commentary.
This is a love story, but not a love story for Valentine’s Day. This is a love story more appropriate for Mother’s Day.
Quanah’s mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was abducted by Comanche raiders on the Texas frontier when she was 9. She was raised as a Comanche and married Chief Nocona. She had three children, the oldest of whom was Quanah. Cynthia Ann was eventually “discovered” by white men who traded with the Comanches. Her family, having searched for her for years, quickly organized a ransom offer. The Comanches would not sell her. No matter how much they WERE offered, tribal elders would not sell her. This was because Cynthia Ann did not want to go. Though born white, she was now culturally Comanche, the wife of a chief, with three children she loved.
Many years later, her camp along a tributary of the Pease River was attacked by Texas Rangers. Her husband was killed but her boys escaped. Cynthia Ann was finally freed from captivity, but she saw it as being abducted again. She was now 34. While being escorted to Tarrant County after the battle, she was photographed in Fort Worth with her daughter, Prairie Flower, at her chest and her hair cut short – a Comanche sign of mourning.
She never readjusted to white culture and tried many times to escape and return to her tribe. She begged to go back to her people. As S.C. Gwynne reported in his masterpiece, “Empire of the Summer Moon,” Cynthia Ann knew Spanish better than English. She told a translator: “Mi corazón llorando todo el tiempo por mi dos hijos.” “My heart cries all the time for my two boys” – Quanah and Pecos. But they wouldn’t give her her wish. Her relatives believed she would readjust in time. In truth, she was being held captive a second time.
She never gave up her Comanche ways. She often sat outside with a small fire and worshiped the Great Spirit according to the customs she knew. Sadly, Prairie Flower died of the flu a few years after they were returned to white society. And Cynthia herself died SEVEN years after that, relatively young, essentially of a broken heart.
Gwynne eulogized her this way: “She was a white woman by birth, yes, but also a relic of the Comancheria, the fading empire of high grass and fat summer moons and buffalo herds that blackened the horizon. She had seen all of that death and glory. She had been a chief’s wife. She had lived free on the high infinite plains as her adopted race had in the very last place in the North American Continent where anyone would ever live or run free. She had died in the deep pine woods where there was no horizon…”
Quanah lost his mother when he was just 12 and longed for her all his life. When he surrendered to life on the reservation he searched for her and was sad to learn that she had died and was buried far away in Texas. All he had of her was a photograph someone gave him, which he kept over his bed always.
He jumped through elaborate legal hoops for many years to get her body moved and buried on Comanche soil. When he was successful, he felt his mother was finally home. When Quanah died, he was buried next to her. He believed that though separated for so long in life, they would certainly be together forever with the Great Spirit in the Sky.
Rank #11: When the Young Lieutenant Met the Wild Mustangs
He was 22 years old, riding his horse south of Corpus Christi in the vicinity of what would one day be called the King Ranch. But that wouldn’t happen for another twenty years.
This vast stretch of sandy prairie was still known as “The Wild Horse Desert.”
In some ways it was a spooky place – ghostly. You would see horse tracks everywhere, but no people. There were plenty of worn trails, but the population was merely equestrian.
Folks reckoned that these horses were the descendants of the ones that arrived with Cortez, when he came to conquer the Aztecs. Some had escaped, migrated north, and bred like rabbits (if you can say that about horses).
Our young man – actually a newly minted second lieutenant from West Point – was riding with a regiment of soldiers under the command of General Zachary Taylor. They were under orders to establish Fort Texas on the Rio Grande and enforce that river as the southern border of the U.S. Fort Texas would shortly become Fort Brown, the fort that Brownsville, Texas would take its name from.
The young lieutenant, who had excelled as a horseman at West Point, was so impressed with the seemingly infinite herds of wild horses in South Texas that he made a note of it in his journal. He said:
“A few days out from Corpus Christi, the immense herd of wild horses that ranged at that time between the Nueces and the Rio Grande was directly in front of us. I rode out a ways to see the extent of the herd. The country was a rolling prairie, and from the higher ground, the vision was obstructed only by the curvature of the earth. As far as the eye could reach to the right, the herd extended. To the left, it extended equally. There was no estimating the number of animals in it; I doubt that they could all have been corralled in the State of Rhode Island, or Delaware, at one time. If they had been, they would have been so thick that the pasture would have given out the first day.”
Both General Taylor and his Second Lieutenant would distinguish themselves on that journey.
Zachary Taylor had no idea that this Wild Horse Desert would lead to him on to victory in Mexico and to political victory back home. He would become the 12th President of the United States.
His dashing second lieutenant would also ascend to the presidency, 20 years after him.
The young man on high ground, surveying the primordial scene of thousands of mustangs grazing before him, would become the hero of many battles in the years ahead. He would ultimately lead the union forces to victory in the Civil War – and become the youngest president of the U.S. His presidential memoirs would become a runaway bestseller – a book Mark Twain would publish and call “the most remarkable work of its kind since Caesar’s Commentaries.” It is that book that gives us this story.
It was written by Hiram U. Grant. Well that was his birth name. But when he entered West Point, due to a clerical error, the name Hiram was dropped and his middle name became his first name, the name you know him by: Ulysses. Ulysses S. Grant.
Listen to the full audio in the player above.
W.F Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. And 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.
Rank #12: Gunsmoke & Texas
By W. F. Strong
Ever heard of the Gunsmoke Rule?
It was created several years ago by TV ratings guru Bill Gorman. He noticed that sports cable channel shows like ESPN’s “First Take” were being beaten by Gunsmoke reruns. In fact, Newsday found in a sample a few years ago that all but seven of the 276 sports programs on cable television one day were being beaten by Gunsmoke reruns, even though the show went off the air more than 40 years ago. So the message to sports show programmers was, “If you’re not beating Gunsmoke, you’ve got little to crow about.”
And that’s just Gunsmoke reruns.
When Gunsmoke was actually on the air in prime-time during its 20 year run, it was often the number one show on television. It was enormously popular in Texas. As a kid I remember it being the last show I could watch Saturday night before being rushed off to bed. I always felt deeply connected to the culture of the show and I recently learned why.
Not long ago I was I visiting with an old friend and colleague, Dr. Jack Stanley who wrote his dissertation on “Gunsmoke.” We were discussing the show and he said to me, “Did you know that Matt Dillon was a Texan?”
“No,” I said, “I didn’t.”
Dillon is the central character of Gunsmoke — the U.S. Marshal of Dodge City, Kansas. In the series, he often goes to Texas to bring back a bad guy. I didn’t know, though, that Matt Dillon was from Texas.
It’s true. Jack told me that in the last made-for-TV Gunsmoke movie, which aired in 1994, “One Man’s Justice,” it was revealed that Matt was born in San Antonio.
His father was, in fact, a Texas Ranger and was killed in the line of duty. But Matt didn’t move immediately in the direction of becoming a law man. The movie reveals he spent some years in the Texas Panhandle where he sowed his wild oats and crossed paths with outlaws who tried to corrupt him. He resisted and moved on to Kansas where he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a U.S. Marshal, the iron-handed law man of Dodge City.
Another thing you might not know is that, originally, the show was on the radio. It opened with this line from the narrator:
“Around Dodge City and in the territory on West, there’s only one way to handle the killers and spoilers … with a U.S. Marshal and the smell of gunsmoke.”
William Conrad played Matt Dillon on radio, but when the show moved to TV, another Texas favorite, John Wayne, was supposed to play Matt Dillon. He decided against it, though, and convinced James Arness, a man who was often his double in movies, to take the role.
On TV, the show opened in its early seasons with no narration. It showed a quick-draw gunfight between Matt and an outlaw, which Matt won, of course.
There is a close-up of Matt’s post-fight grimace that seems to say, “Business as usual. Bad guys making bad choices.”
Gunsmoke still has enormous viewership, almost half a century since it quit putting out new episodes. It’s on TV-Land these days and based on my own survey of Texans, including my brother Redneck Dave and his crowd of six retirees, it’s on several hours a day in their households. I myself subscribe to the Western Channel just so I can watch Gunsmoke. And now that I know that Matt was a Texan, which I always suspected, I will enjoy all the more.
Rank #13: Trying to Talk Texan? Let Your Words Lean Into Each Other
A nice lady wrote to me not long ago and said that she was happy to have a son with a good, solid, two-syllable Texas name. “His name is ‘Ben,’”she wrote.
I loved that. We do that, don’t we? Well, many of us do, anyway. There are 30 million Texans so there are many dialects out there. But in the traditional or classic Texas dialect, we tend to convert one-syllable words to two-syllable words. Ben becomes “Bey-uhn.” Jet becomes “Jay-ut.” Mess is “May-us.” This is what I call the Texas Diphthong.
In the traditional or classic Texas dialect, we have a tendency to stretch our vowels and put a lilt into them:
Dress becomes “Dray-us”
Grass becomes “Grah-us”
Dance is “Day-unce”
We do it with the first syllable of many two-syllable words, too. Tasty becomes “Tay-uh-stee.” Or we can do it on the last syllable of a two-syllable word. Denise becomes “De-nay-us.”
And believe it or not, some of us are so talented we can create triphthongs out of a one-syllable word. We can squeeze three into one. Ham becomes “Ha-uh-um.” This talent has been particularly mastered by televangelists who really like to elongate those vowels with words like hell – which becomes “hay-uhl-ah.” Sounds more frightening that way. When they say it like that it doesn’t differ from the hail that falls from the sky – so I’m not sure whether they are talking about fire or ice.
And that is something typical of us Texans. We make no distinction between some sounds that people up north make a big distinction between. We make no distinction between the pen that we write with and the flag pin we wear on our lapels. Up north they say Bic pen and flag pin. Pen and pin. We say Bic pen and flag pin the same way. Perfect rhyme. Up North they say beer and bear differently. Some Texans make no distinction between the bear they run from and the beverage they drink to celebrate getting away.
I got many of these examples from my friend, Dr. Lars Hinrichs, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin; he’s a word doctor. For years he has been studying Texas English and he told me that Texans also reverse this diphthong process. We will sometimes convert what would be a diphthong into a monophthong. For instance, how do you say these words: nice, white and rice? If you say them like this – nice, white, rice, then you have a strong Texas accent, and also a southern one. Not much difference between the two, Hinrichs says, except for some differences in speech rhythm and some local expressions. For instance, he says, only in Texas can you feel “as sore as boiled owl,” or refer to a skunk as a “polecat.”
Hinrichs has been studying the Texas dialect for a long time. And he tells me that in the I-35 corridor we are seeing a leveling of the accent. This means that all the newcomers mingling their accents with ours is causing phonetic hybrids to emerge. So the classic Texas dialect, in the corridor, is not quite as strong as it was 20 years ago. It is evolving. East Texas and West Texas is leveling at a glacial pace compared to the corridor. Also, y’all will be happy to know that “y’all,” Hinrichs says, is not receding. It is perhaps proliferating because it is so grammatically efficient. All y’all newcomers are pickin’ it up. Some linguists say that even the Californians and the New Yorkers have started to use it.
Hollywood has had its struggles with the Texas accent, often hiring dialog coaches for authenticity. When Michael Caine came to Texas to film “Secondhand Lions”, he was struggling with the Texas accent and he said his dialog coach taught him that Texans let their words lean up against each other. He said that he realized that the British English is clipped, crisp and precise. Texas English is relaxed and each word leans into the other and just keeps things goin’ along smoothly. He learned to spread out his vowels and let his consonants lean up against each other. That’s it. That’s the secret. I won’t say he mastered it, but I will say “Secondhand Lions” was fine Texas film.
So the Texas accent is in no danger of dyin’ out. But I do think we should make an effort to keep it from becoming endangered. Wouldn’t want to have to start a Foundation for the Endangered Texas Accent, or FETA. So we can prevent that by all y’all makin’ sure you use “y’all” a dozen times a day and always be fixin’ to do somethin’. Get relaxed with your language. Let your words lean up against each other. And make sure you use your Texas diphthong every chance you “gee-ut.”
Rank #14: The Real Texan Who Inspired Captain Woodrow F. Call
In the mini-series Lonesome Dove, Charles Goodnight was immortalized loosely as Captain Woodrow F. Call, played by Tommy Lee Jones. In truth, Charles Goodnight in real life was even more fascinating than the fictional Woodrow Call.
Goodnight, who is the most famous rancher in Texas history, and the most ubiquitous Texan of his time, became a Texas Ranger at the age of 21. They recruited him because he was already locally famous in North Texas as a skilled Indian scout and tracker. The year was 1857 and the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Army were the front line of defense against Native American raids into Central Texas.
Goodnight tells of how the Texas Rangers one day got an inexperienced commander from back East. This commander had never fought Native Americans. He had never been out on the great plains. Yet he was all puffed up with self-importance and wanted to charge out and take on some Comanches. So he ordered the Rangers westward and after a couple of days, he spotted his first Indians on a distant hill.
Excited, he called Goodnight over and asked him, “What kind of Indians are those?” Goodnight paused and said, “Antelope.” The rookie Commander thought Goodnight was lying to him and ordered the Rangers to charge the group. Goodnight said, “We charged, laughing all the way, and successfully routed those antelope without losing a man.”
Goodnight was always fascinated by the shields the Native Americans carried to stop arrows and bullets. He had always heard that the shields had reams of paper stuffed inside to make them bullet resistant.
One day he shot at an Indian retreating into the brush. His target escaped but dropped his shield. Goodnight took it back to the camp and pried open the buffalo skin cover and wood frame and was shocked to discover an entire book inside. The book was The History of the Roman Empire. It solved the mystery as to why raiding Comanche so often took Bibles. They wanted the paper to bulletproof their shields, or, more accurately, to make them bullet-resistant. (They should have looked for Moby Dick. I always found that novel impenetrable. Don’t know what it would do against bullets, but it makes a hell of a door stopper.)
Charles Goodnight was indeed a genuine Texas Ranger, but he was also a genuine business entrepreneur. Had he lived a century later he might well have been someone like Michael Dell or Mark Cuban.
His biographer, J. Evetts Haley, said that Goodnight and his partner Oliver Loving were the first to drive cattle from Texas to Colorado. But before he started on this venture, everyone told Goodnight it couldn’t be done. They told him he couldn’t get cattle across the desert-like conditions of West Texas. They told him he would be brutally killed by Apache or Comanches, staked out naked on an ant bed to wait for vultures to pick his bones.
They told him that even if he did make it, the cattle would be mere skeletons by then and he’d have nothing to sell. Like all trailblazers, he simply ignored the naysayers. He ignored those who were always around to predict failure.
He proved them wrong and got rich doing so. He was only 30 years old at the time. Many Texans followed his lead and the trail became famous as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Loving, by the way, was loosely depicted as Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove.
Though Goodnight eventually owned the biggest ranch in Texas, well over a million acres, when he was in his 90s, J. Evetts Haley, Goodnight’s foremost biographer, reported that he had this to say about his tumultuous life:
“All in all, my years on the cattle trail were the happiest I have lived. There were many hardships and dangers, of course, that called on all a man had of endurance and bravery; but when all went well there was no other life so pleasant. Most of the time we were solitary adventurers in a great land as fresh and new as a spring morning, and we were free and full of the zest of those who dared.”
Rank #15: The Top 12 Quotes From ‘Lonesome Dove’
Spoiler alert! In case you’ve been under a rock in Ogallala for the last three decades, this story contains spoilers for “Lonesome Dove.”
Since I am, like many Texans, an amateur expert on “Lonesome Dove,” people often ask me what I figure are the most loved quotes from the miniseries.
If I were wise, I would just say any of a hundred quotes could be someone’s number one, and leave it at that. But I have never let lack of wisdom stop me. I cannot resist the challenge of making a list. I know it is a delicate business; it is holy ground.
But the list I’m about to share is not just my opinion. I do have data on my side, based on feedback from a popular Facebook page devoted to “Lonesome Dove.” From that page I have been able to tabulate the most popular quotes or excerpts from the miniseries:
No 12. Woodrow has just buried Gus and puts up the grave marker made of the famous Hat Creek Cattle Company sign. Woodrow says: “I guess this’ll teach me to be careful about what I promise in the future.”
No 11. When the boys seem a little shocked by Gus’, shall we say, manly appetites, he says: “What’s good for me may not be good for the weak minded.”
No 10. Right after Gus has cut the cards with Lorie and she accuses him of cheating. He says, “I won’t say I did and I won’t say I didn’t, but I will say that a man who wouldn’t cheat for a poke don’t want one bad enough.”
No 9. Not long before Gus goes guns blazing into Blue Duck’s camp to save Lorie, he says, “They don’t know it, but the wrath of the Lord is about to descend on ‘em.”
No 8. Gus finds July Johnson burying his son, and Jenny and Rosco. July is naturally distraught, blaming himself, saying he should have stayed with them. Gus says: “Yesterday’s gone, we can’t get it back.” But he does assure him that if he ever runs into Blue Duck again, he will kill him for him.
No 7. Gus gets exasperated with Woodrow because Woodrow, to Gus’s way of thinking, is being dense. Gus says: “Woodrow, you just don’t ever get the point – ‘It’s not dyin’ I’m talkin’ about, it’s livin’.”
No 6. This quote punctuates the scene when Jake Spoon must be hanged along with the murdering horse thieves he has thrown in with. Jake pleads his case but Gus has little sympathy. He says, “You know how it works, Jake. You ride with the outlaw, you die with the outlaw. Sorry, you crossed the line.”
No 5. The San Antonio bar scene has several great lines together, so I decided to count them as one quote.
The bartender, upon insulting Gus and Call, gets his nose broken when Gus slams his face into the oak bar. Gus explains: “Besides a whiskey, I think we will require a little respect. . . . If you care to turn around, you will see what we looked like when we was younger and the people around her wanted to make us senators. What we didn’t put up with back then was doddlin’ service, and as you can see, we still don’t put up with it.”
As they rode away, Woodrow tells Gus he’s lucky he didn’t get thrown in jail and Gus says, “Ain’t much of a crime, whackin’ a surly bartender.”
No 4. A touching line, uttered by Gus as he lay dying. He says to Woodrow: “It’s been quite a party ain’t it?”
No 3. This one is a tie – so close I couldn’t separate them.
The first comes at the first of the movie, back at Lonesome Dove when Bol infers that Gus may be too old for romance anymore and Gus sets him straight. He says, “The older the violin, the sweeter the music.”
Following soon after that scene comes Call’s advice to Newt. Call hands him his first pistol and says, “Better to have that and not need it than need it and not have it.”
No 2. Gus lays out a prescription for Lorie’s future happiness. She is obsessed with going to San Francisco, and he wants her to understand that that dream is likely a misguided one.
“You see, life in San Francisco is still just life. If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things – like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”
No 1. I began with Call and we end with him. Though Gus gets a great number of the best lines, Woodrow gets, without question, the most powerful, most quoted line of all.
After Call beat an army scout to a pulp, the horrified townspeople – who have never witnessed such violence before – are standing around in shock and seem to require an explanation. Call obliges them. He says, “I hate rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it.”
There you go. That’s the top twelve according to the data. Now when you write to me to tell that the list is wrong or that I left out this or that, I ask only that you remember Captain Call’s admonition: No rude behavior.
Rank #16: 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.
Rank #17: The How, Where and Why of Valentine, Texas
In Texas, we have a lot of towns with cool names. There is actually a town named Cool. And Cut and Shoot. And Valentine. Yes, Valentine. How cool is that? Especially if it’s February.
The story goes that a railroad crew, in 1882, had finished laying the tracks to the point where a water and fuel depot would be needed. It was Valentine’s Day. So they named the depot Valentine. It also was the name of one of their superiors, so the name has dual origins. Valentine, to give you coordinates, is halfway between L.A. and New Orleans, almost exactly 1000 miles from each. Or, if you want something local, halfway between Marfa and Van Horn. Deep in the Heart of West Texas.
Valentine never got very big. It says 217 on the city limits sign, but the mayor there, Jesus Calderon (who goes by Chuy), says that it is likely about 180 these days. Chuy has been mayor there for 40 years, likely a record of some kind for mayoral longevity in Texas. In addition to being mayor, he taught in the Valentine Independent School District for over decades and even worked part-time for many years as the local Fed Ex delivery man. Nobody knows Valentine like Chuy. He says there is no gas station, no ATM, and no crime.
The school, K-12, has about 40 students. Some years they only graduate five or six from high school. One year, not too long ago, they graduated two. Think about that. If you’re the poorer student of the two, you are simultaneously in the bottom 50 percent of your class and the salutatorian. Lisa Morton, who grew up there and is managing editor of the Van Horn Advocate, says that her sister graduated alone. I said that must have been a lonely event and she said, “Oh, no, the whole town came out to celebrate her big day.” Gotta love small towns.
Well, the town isn’t so small that it doesn’t have a post office. And in February they are busier than Santa’s elves on Christmas Eve. This time of year they receive thousands of cards to be re-mailed bearing the Valentine postage stamp. The cards come from all over the U.S. and as many as 30 foreign countries. One year they sent one to the White House, to Chelsea Clinton. Each year there is a design contest at the school and the winner has their “love logo” chosen as that year’s stamp. Imagine that. You can send your Valentine a Valentine from Valentine. Can’t get much more romantic than that!
Unless you take your Valentine to Valentine on the 14th. Chuy says they have a big party each year, underwritten by Big Bend Brewing Company from nearby Alpine. Last year, Jerry Jeff Walker played. Two years ago, Joe Ely was there playing his famous song, Saint Valentine. This year, Little Joe y La Familia will headline the event. Since Valentine’s Day falls on a Tuesday, there was pressure to move it to the weekend, but Mahala Guevara, vice president of Big Bend Brewing, explains in the official brochure: “West Texas was never known for convenience; to enjoy the best the region has to offer, you have to be willing to work for it. And your hard work will be rewarded with great Texas music… “
Gotta love it. A work ethic embedded in leisure. A very Texas concept.
Big Bend Brewing is even brewing a special ale for the event called Total Commitment. On the back of this limited edition brew it says, in part, “The owner of this…came all the way to Valentine, Texas, on a Tuesday night…what Total Commitment do you have to make.” At 14.2 percent proof, it is appropriately named. Makes my eyes a little misty thinking about it.
The most romantic Texas couple I know is Coach Taylor and his wife Tami, from Friday Night Lights. They are fictional, but they’re also authentically romantic. I could see them taking an impromptu road trip to Valentine for Valentine’s – just 200 miles from Dillon.
Coach Taylor always told his team: “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” It’s good advice for football. Probably good advice for love, too.
Rank #18: 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.
Rank #19: Words, They are a Changin’
Slang is the working class of words. Carl Sandburg said “slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.”
But slang is always changing. For an older guy like me, It’s hard to keep up with.
Did you know that “on fleek,” “squad,” and “lit” are on their way out? Neither did I. Those words are going out before I knew they were in. Hell, I just learned “hipster” a few months ago, which likely proves I’m not one. It also shows I’m late to learn new slang. No surprises there. By the time I catch up with a new movement, it has generally moved on.
Millennials, by contrast, change slang faster than Taylor Swift changes boyfriends.
One trend that I have noticed lately is how many words or expressions common 20 years ago have either disappeared altogether or reversed meanings.
“Parking” is a case in point. Twenty years ago parking was the term for finding a quiet spot on a country road and enjoying some intimate time with your date.
That meaning is gone. If you bring up that term in front of today’s college students, they will say, “I know. The parking problem on campus is terrible.” If you explain what it used to mean they will say, “Oh, you mean Netflix and chill!”
“Shade” is something I’ve always tried to sit in. Now, evidently, it is something you can throw.
“Sick” is the new cool. “Sick” used to mean ill, but now it means that something is hip: “That is a sick tune you’re playin’.” Wicked is also strangely good. “Leah, you’re sick and wicked.” That’s a compliment!
“Savage” used to be a word no one wanted to be associated with. Now it works as praise. “That motorcyle jump was savage, dude.” Or you can use it as a verb, “You savaged that Snickers bar.”
“Dope?” used to be an idiot – as in “He’s a dope.” Now, it is something or someone who is super cool, as in “that’s so dope” or “nobody’s dope as me.” There are even caps that sport the word DOPE right up front. A few decades ago that would have been a punishment.
“Howdy” has largely been replaced, at least among some millennials by “‘Sup,” a contraction of “What’s up?” But I’m sure there’s still a few young “howdiers” out there.
“Awesome” has changed in the sense that it used to be a powerful word, a word that could bench press 500 pounds. It was reserved for Godly things, for divine things. You would use it for a crimson sunset over El Capitan in West Texas. But now this sublime word is used promiscuously – as in “those are awesome tacos” or “You’ll be here in ten minutes? Awesome.” Inflation has set in. “Awesome” has lost its awesomeness. The same is true for “amazing.”
We have some nonverbal reversals, too. Wearing your cap backwards or sideways used to be considered nerdy. Wearing it cocked to the side once made you seem like a clown. Today, wearing it that way can be “dope.” But only in youth culture. If I were to do it, I would look like an old clown. Best for me to stick to Stetsons.
Used to be that wearing your shirt tail out was slovenly. Now, it is stylish. Wearing your shirt tucked in is considered nerdy. Out is in and in is out. Unless you are talking about Western fashion where the tucked tradition mostly prevails.
One word that seems to have weathered the decades without changing is “cool.” “Cool” was cool in the sixties and it is still cool today. And not only is it cross-generational, it is cross-cultural, too. “Cool” is cool in the African-American world. It’s cool in the hispanic world and it’s cool in white culture. It’s cool in rap and it’s cool in country. It’s transcontinental as well. People around the world who don’t speak English seem to know at least two words: “okay” and “cool.” “Cool” is singularly diverse with diverse acceptance. And that’s awesome.
A younger, perpetually cooler friend heard me making these observations and he said to me, “Don’t be throwin’ shade on our slang. You just need to get woke, dude.”
That’s probably true. Workin’ on it.
‘Til next time, YOLO y’all.
Rank #20: Sure, Texas Is Big – But It Used to Be Even Bigger
Texans have a kind of proverb that goes like this:
“Driving across Texas isn’t a trip; it’s a damn career.”
Texas is big, no doubt about that. But it used to be a lot bigger – about a fourth bigger. When Texas joined the United States in 1845, Texas’ borders (and shape) were quite different.
The northern boundary of Texas in those days stretched all the way up into what is today southern Wyoming. It´s true. In those days, the northernmost town in Texas was not Dalhart, it was Rawlins. You think it’s a long way from Brownsville to Dalhart now – at 860 miles – try 1,400 miles to Rawlins. In 1845 a trip like that would have been measured in seasons, not days. We’ll leave in early spring and get there before winter sets in.
Texas used to have a panhandle for the panhandle. It stretched north of the present day border and passed through prime Colorado Rockies real estate (including Vail) into Wyoming. They called that the stovepipe because that is what it looked like – a long skinny stovepipe, snaking northward. You can still find vestiges of Texas up there in that part of Wyoming. For instance, there is a creek up there named Texas Creek.
Texas used to include what is today the panhandle of Oklahoma. That territory is comprised of three counties. One of them is still named Texas County. So some Oklahomans still live in Texas. Well, Texas County, anyway.
The southwestern tip of Kansas was claimed by Texas. Dodge City was in Texas. Glad to know that. “Gunsmoke” always seemed like a Texas series. We know that Marshal Matt Dillon was born in San Antonio. His father was a Texas Ranger. It’s all coming together.
New Mexico used to be about half its current size because Santa Fe and Taos and all the eastern part of the state was Texas. Texas was so big in 1845 that if you had put a hinge on the northernmost part and flipped it northward, Brownsville would have been in Northern Canada next to Hudson Bay. Don’t think those Brownsvillians would have liked trading the tropics for the tundra, but that would be the result.
If you had flipped Texas southward, the people of Rawlins would have been in Peru. The East-West boundaries would have been about the same as they are today. Still, flip Texas eastward and you will have the El Pasoans trading their margaritas for mint juleps in Georgia. Flip it westward and the Beaumantians will be hanging ten with California surfer dudes.
So what happened to all our land? The U.S. government bought it in 1850. For $10 million they bought our claims to our Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma – it came to 6.7 cents an acre. Seems like we sold out cheap, but we desperately needed the money then. And remember that $10 million in 1850 is $300 million in today’s dollars, which is almost enough to buy a nice vacation home in Vail.
But, as I said, we really needed the money. We had a state to build and the only true assets we had in those days were land – and a tough, hardened people made of unbreakable spirits. So we sold the land and paid off debts and got a much more appealing shape to the state, a shape that fits nicely on t-shirts.
So even though we sold off our lands, we are nonetheless no slouch of a state, especially when we drive it. We still measure distance in time. We still feel like we are crossing an enormous frontier when driving I-10 through West Texas or I-69 to the southern border. And this old Texas saying is still valid:
“The sun has riz; the sun has set; and here I is in Texas yet.”