History

Texas Standard: February 24, 2021

As Governor Abbott prepares for a statewide televised address on the blackouts, many wonder why they haven’t heard more from him before now. Rapid fallout from the blackout of 2021 already happening, as 5 ERCOT board members say they’ll tender their resignations. We’ll have the latest. Also more on the implications of last weeks blackout in the fight against COVID-19. And could last weeks disaster actually lead to changes in labor laws? A labor historian on what history tells us about past patterns. Plus commentator W.F. Strong rethinks his list of Texas-themed tunes, a Politifact check of Beto O’Rourke and more today on the Texas Standard:

Artist Tom Lea’s ‘Sarah In The Summertime’

As Valentine’s Day is approaching, I thought I’d share a romantic story about one of Texas’s greatest artists, Tom Lea.  This is a love story, expressed in one painting, titled “Sarah in the Summertime.”  I’ll tell you the story of that painting and how it came to be.

Tom Lea was a true renaissance artist in the sense that he was both a gifted painter and writer. He was a muralist and a novelist. His murals are, to this day, in public buildings in Washington, D.C., El Paso, his home town and Odessa. President George W. Bush had one of his paintings hanging in the Oval Office. Lea’s novels, “The Brave Bulls” and “The Wonderful Country” are considered Southwestern classics.  His two-volume history of the King Ranch can be found in any home with a good Texas library.

Tom met Sarah in 1938, when he was working on his celebrated “Pass of the North” mural in El Paso.  He was invited to a small dinner party where she was also a guest. Sarah was from Monticello, Illinois, and in town visiting friends. He was immediately enchanted by her and decided that evening that he wanted to marry her. Tom had the good sense not to confess to that wish right there. No. He waited until their first date two nights later to pop the question. She didn’t say “yes” until he met her parents. Several months later, they were married. It was a storybook romance that spanned 63 years.

Tom and Sarah were only apart for one extended period of time during their marriage, and that was during World War II, when he was an artist for Life Magazine, embedded with the U.S. Navy. He documented the realities of the war in drawings and paintings, the most famous of which was “The Two Thousand Yard Stare.” Naturally, Tom missed Sarah terribly every day.

Here I will let the famous novelist take over the narration. He wrote:

I had a snapshot of Sarah which I carried in my wallet during the whole war. I looked at it, homesick, all over the world. When the war was over, the first painting I began was a full-length, life-size portrait of Sarah in the same dress, the same pose, the same light as the little snapshot.

I worked a long time making a preliminary drawing in charcoal and chalk, designing the glow of light and the placement of the figure against a clearness of blue sky, the mountains like Mount Franklin, the leafy trees and green grass and summer sunlight, before I transferred the drawing to the canvas. It was a detailed and precisely measured drawing. For instance, Sarah’s height of 5 foot 6 in high heels was drawn on the canvas exactly 5 ft 6. The painting was done with devotion and without haste. First the background, then the figure, and finally her head. I remember that I worked 26 days painting the pattern of all the little flowers on the dress. … 2 years after I began work on it, longer than any other painting ever took me, I signed it framed it and gave it to Sarah. I see it everyday in our living room and I see Sarah [too]. 20 years have passed. “Sarah in the Summertime” means more to me that I could ever put on canvas.

Adair Margo, his agent and decadeslong friend, and founder of the Tom Lea Institute, told me that Tom Lea would never let that painting leave the house, not for any showing or exhibition. Only once was she able to convince him to put it in a local exhibit, but only for a few hours, and it had to be back that night.

Tom and Sarah are buried side by side in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. There’s one headstone with divided inscriptions for each. On Sarah’s side it says, from Tom, “Sarah and I live on the east side of the mountain. It is the sunrise side. It is the side to see the day coming. Not the side to see the day is gone. The best day is the day coming, with work to do, with eyes wide open, with the heart grateful.”

In Praise Of Vultures

I go for walks in the country often this time of year here in the Rio Grande Valley. This is our Goldilocks season. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right.

We have a perfectly warming sun in the crisp, cool air of winter mornings. I like to walk along a dirt road that has freshly plowed farmland on one side and a deep motte of mesquite and huisache trees on the other. A committee of vultures watches me from atop  the tallest of these trees, far away from civilization. That’s the official name for a group of vultures. A Committee. Sometimes they are also called a venue of vultures. I like that. Based on what I’ve seen of committees and their venues I can see the salience of the metaphor.

In Texas, these birds are often mistakenly called buzzards. This is common but it’s technically wrong because buzzards are completely different birds. We don’t have buzzards in Texas, though I will admit to calling them that myself growing up. I don’t recall referring to groups of birds by their correct labels, either – such as murder of crows or covey of quail or flamboyance of flamingos. I still don’t. I tend more toward my brother “redneck Dave’s” lexicon which is pretty much reduced to the word “bunch.” He says, “You got a bunch of ducks in your yard.” And if there’s more than that he says, “You got a whole bunch of ducks in your yard.” More still are covered by, “You got a mighty big bunch of ducks in your yard.”

Back to the vultures. This committee of vultures – turkey vultures in this case, are perched high up in the trees, like undertakers –  eyeing me – sometimes stretching out their wings to display their impressive six-foot span. But mostly I’m a curiosity, not a disturbance. They don’t fly away. I’m sure I would be much more interesting to them if I were dead.

Turkey Vultures don’t have a lot of fans. Many people see them as disgusting birds that eat disgusting things. They have red heads. They’re mostly bald, with faces that only a mother could love – a mother vulture, that is. On the ground picking through road kill, they look ungraceful and ragged and ungainly. But in the air, they are, to me, transformed into graceful, heart-stirring masters of the wind. On the ground they are called committees, but in they air they are called kettles of vultures because in their swirling ride upward on the thermals, they look like bubbles rising in heated water. Ornithologists, bird experts, tell us that it is by riding high on the thermals that they hunt for carrion, or dead things. But they don’t do it  by sight. They do it by smell. The smell of the decaying animals is carried up by the thermals and the birds track that smell to the source. Tests have shown that they always arrive on the upwind side of corpus delicti and that’s how experts know that smell is dominant.

Yes, the process is gross to us, but if you consider the scientific name for the turkey vulture – Cathartes Aura – they sound noble.  It means cleansing breeze. They swoop in on the wind and clean the earth. And they are disinfectors too, consuming anthrax and cholera bacteria and safely removing it. In this sense they are hazmat teams. But my admiration of these magnificent creatures is fully realized watching them in flight. I can sit in my backyard and watch hundreds of them ride high up in the sky like an avian tornado. They’re having fun up there. They’re not all about carrion, I’m convinced. They’re windsurfers fully elated by this vulture sport they collectively love. The winds do not conquer them. They ride them high into the vaulted blue, cloudless skies. Some, pilots tell us, go as high as 20,000 feet and they rarely have to flap their wings. They just soar and glide, at one with the wind.

You can find them all across Texas, along with their slightly smaller cousins, the black vultures, which prefer the eastern part of the state. Together they are our cleaners, our sanitizers, the avian, last line of defense for our most famous slogan:  “Don’t mess with Texas.”

A Letter from Texas

If you had walked into the Neiman-Marcus store during the Christmas season in Dallas in 1939, you would have found a beautiful little book for sale titled A Letter from Texas.  The 20-page book, by the Texas poet, Townsend Miller, was commissioned by Stanley Marcus himself. He had the gifted printer Carl Hertzog publish an exquisite limited edition of the poem with the Neiman-Marcus imprint on the title page. Mr. Stanley, as Marcus came to be called, loved the Texcentric poem. He wanted to make it available in the store at Christmastime so that out-of-staters would have a unique gift to take back home or send to friends and family.. 

I happen to have a copy of Miller’s book. The poem is a letter to his friend, John. In it, Miller shares his passionate love for Texas with a kind of contagious exuberance: 

     John, it is a strange land.  John it is hard to describe.  

          But perhaps try this. Hold up your right hand, palm outward,

          And break the last three fingers down from the joint.

          And there you have it.  The westering thumb.

          The silent bleak land, the silent mesas

          Big Bend and the great canyons at its end

          El Paso, the Northern Pass, and they came down through it. 

          Southward and east, the slow hot river moving

          River of Palms, Grande del Norte, and over the wrist,

          To Brownsville, and it empties into the vast blue waters

 

Miller describes each part of the state using the geography of his hand as a model of the Texas.  He says “the tongue staggers” to describe the state’s  size.  

Miller was best known for the country music column he wrote for the Austin American-Statesman from 1972-to-1984.  He was less of a critic and more of a promoter of the then-nascent music scene in and around Austin – his hometown for most of his life. 

In his letter-poem to his friend John, Miller also writes:

Austin, the central city, and she is crowned with the sun

And twice-crowned westward with violet hills,

John, the thick roses swarming over the wall.

The moon in the white courts, the quivering mornings. 

 

Of the Llano Estacado Miller writes: 

And here I think is the heart of it;  

Here you begin to sense it, the size, the silence;

This is the land, empty under enormous sky,

In wide enormous air, nothing of man. 

 

Miller’s poem is the sort of letter we write when we want to convince a friend to move here. 

He concludes this way. 

So now tonight in the central city Texas lies around me.

All silent to the stars; so I write of it. 

Remembering the slow dusk of the Rio Grande

Remembering the high hawks of the violet hills

Remembering the dark eyes in the Calle de Flores,

And the breeze comes up from the Gulf and in the court

Pink oleanders brush on the white wall

And the moon at flood over the westering hills

And my heart is full of it and I send it to you. 

 

Mr. Stanley always had fine aesthetic tastes, especially for Christmas gifts.  His offering of this book long ago still holds up nicely as a gift idea today, if you can find a copy, which you can with some ambitious searching.  Might make a perfect gift for Tesla’s Elon Musk. Welcome to Texas, Elon.

The Texas Connection To Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge

Bridges are measured in three ways, for those who like to keep world records and such: longest, tallest and highest.  In Texas, the Fred Hartman Bridge is both the longest bridge at 2.6 miles, and the tallest, at 440 feet. But it is not the highest. That honor goes to the aptly named Pecos High Bridge, which is an astounding 322 feet above the Pecos River – a football field straight up.

The highest bridge in America, in case you’re wondering, is the Royal Gorge Bridge, which comes in just shy of 1000 feet. It’s in Colorado, and would be in Texas today had we kept our original northern lands. Nonetheless, without Texas, it might not exist at all, as you will see in the history I’m fixin’ to tell you about.

The Royal Gorge Bridge was the dream of Lon P. Piper of San Antonio. They say he stood on the edge of the Gorge in 1928 and imagined laying a bridge across it, a suspension bridge.  He had already built a bridge across the Rio Grande into Mexico.

This Royal Gorge Bridge would be different though. It would be a bridge to nowhere, one that would exist purely to give tourists the kind of heart-stopping views they couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. He knew it would be a challenge, but he was certain it could be done.  Within two years he made his dream come true. It cost him $350,000, or $5 million in today’s dollars. But when it was finished, he owned the highest bridge in the world – and it would remain so for 72 years.

Lon was quite the entrepreneur in those times. He also developed the Richland Springs Treasure Cave in San Saba as a Carlsbad Caverns-like tourist attraction in the 1920s and ’30s.  He was also an early investor in a new concept of motor hotels – or “motels.”

Lon hired bridge engineer George Cole of Houston to design the Royal Gorge Bridge and to serve as the general contractor. With 70 men they completed the project in six months without a fatality or any serious injuries. As I learned about the bridge’s history, I couldn’t help but notice its national character. It was a bridge built by Texans, in Colorado, that spanned the Arkansas River, using Oregon timber for the deck. That’s some interstate diversity in one bridge. Mr. Cole went on to design and build the narrow-gauge railroad that would take brave riders to the bottom of the gorge at a 45-degree angle.   Now there are gondolas far above the gorge for those who want to go higher still, and zip lines for those who can’t get enough tachycardia in their lives.

In 1947, Lon sold the bridge to another Texan, Clint Murchison, Sr. Murchison bought it sight unseen, as an investment, and strangely never traveled there to walk across his magnificent possession. He never stood at the precipice of the gorge to admire the highest bridge in the world that he just happened to own. Makes me think of Fitzgerald who said, “The rich are different from you and me.” No, Muchison just set up the Royal Gorge Bridge Company and based it in Dallas to manage the Colorado property from there. When he died the bridge was passed on to his sons, Clint Murchison, Jr. (you remember him – he founded and owned the Dallas Cowboys for 25 years), and his brother John. When John Murchison died his wife Lucille inherited the bridge and they say, “she just loved it;” she traveled up there to see it several times a year.

For the past 20 years the Royal Gorge Bridge’s general manager of operations has been Mike Bandera, a Texan who got his start in the amusement park business at Six Flags Over Texas where he worked for 16 years.

Today,  the Royal Gorge Bridge, after nearly 100 years, has Colorado ownership. Lucille passed it on to her grandchildren, and they sold it a few years ago to Canyon City.

So I’d like to say this to Colorado, about the world-class bridge we envisioned, financed, built and managed for you all these years: “You’re welcome.”

Fall In Texas

The weather has changed. The sights and smells of a new season bring with them memories of seasons past. That was the inspiration for this Typewriter Rodeo poem.

The Queen’s Royal Welcome to Texas

By W. F. Strong and Lupita Strong

February 2021 will mark Queen Elizabeth II’s 69th year on the British throne. In all of those years during which she witnessed some of the world’s most pivotal events, one can say — if one is a Texan — that we deserve an honorable mention amongst those events from her majesty’s life.  Specifically, her 1991 two-day visit to the Lone Star state.  She was the first British monarch ever to visit Texas and we gave the Queen a Texas-sized tip of the ole Stetson. She loved it. She asked her U.S. chief of protocol, “Why didn’t I come here sooner?”  During her visit she gave Texans one of the finest compliments we’ve ever had, but I’ll save that until the end.

Texas has long had a special relationship with Great Britain; it was one of the first European nations to recognize the new Republic of Texas.  We actually flirted for a while with the notion of becoming part of the British Empire in the 1840’s, but the U.S. had other plans.

Five years before the Queen came here, her majesty’s son, Charles, the Prince of Wales, came to Texas to help celebrate the Texas Sesquicentennial.  He cut into the 45 ton, world’s largest birthday cake with a three-foot sword. I mean, it was Texas, what else was he supposed to use?

At the capital the Prince was given a giant gavel. He laughed and said that it was the biggest he had ever had and “extremely appropriate coming from Texas.” While touring San Jacinto later that week. It was February but warm. He asked, “If it’s as hot as this in the winter, what is like in the summer? ”

Texas has had fourteen kings, but it was a queen celebrated  by Texas  May of 1991. Queen Elizabeth visited Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston with an itinerary jam-packed with visits to the River Walk, NASA, the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, and the Alamo.  She even took a ride on the San Antonio River on a beautifully decorated barge.

When she arrived at Love Field Airport, she was greeted with strains of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” The words to “God Save the Queen” were recited before the playing of it so that the mostly Texas audience wouldn’t sing My Country Tis of Thee to the familiar tune.

While in Dallas, she knighted Cecil Howard Green, British-born founder of Texas Instruments and co-founder of the U-T campus there.

Accompanying her majesty on the visit was her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Sitting next to him at the Hall of State dinner commemorating the 150th anniversary of Dallas was Louise Caldwell, president of the Dallas Historical Society. Of the experience, she remarked, “It was very hard to find anything that he didn’t know more about than me . . .  including Texas history.”

The Queen delighted the audience there by recounting the well known Texas story by John Gunther in which a man tells his son: “Never ask a man where he’s from.  If he’s from Texas he’ll tell you.  Otherwise no use embarrassing him by asking.”  

At the State Capitol, Gov. Ann Richards hosted the Queen.  Eight-thousand people gathered to catch a glimpse of her majesty.  The queen  declared, “No state commands such fierce pride and loyalty. Lesser mortals are pitied for their misfortune in not being born Texans.” And she, the most travelled monarch in the world, knows what she’s talking about.

Norfleet: The Texas Rancher Who Kept On Coming

By W.F. Strong

The year was 1919. J. Frank Norfleet, after two years of pursuit, finally slapped the handcuffs on Mr. Stetson in Florida. Stetson – real name: Joe Furey – had swindled Norfleet out of $90,000 in Dallas and Fort Worth two years before. Stetson was shocked to see him and paid him a backhanded compliment. He said, “Well, you old trail hound. I never expected to see you out here. … I thought we left you flat broke in Fort Worth.” Please don’t take me back to Texas, Norfleet … your “damnable hounding” has already cost me “as much money as I have made” off of you.

Stetson’s surprise at having Norfleet slap handcuffs on him is equal to the surprise that most people have when they first hear the incredible story of  the old rancher’s dogged and ultimately successful pursuit of his swindlers. I’m not spoiling the story by telling the ending because the joy of this story is in the chase.

Norfleet had no experience in law enforcement, big city life or sophisticated cons. He was a cowboy and a hunter, a man who had always lived on the edge of the Texas frontier. So when he made up us his mind to pursue the band of bunco men who conned him, he used the only tools he had, which were unfathomable patience, cutting for sign, following the trail no matter how faint, employing camouflage in the way of disguises, always being well-armed, and being willing to withstand all nature of hardship to win in the end. Norfleet out-conned the con men. He seemed to be operating under the motto of  Texas Ranger Capt. Bill McDonald: “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right who just keeps on a-comin’.”

Norfleet was born in Lampasas and grew up on the Texas plains. He was a working cowboy trail herder in his early days and later managed to buy his own ranch out near Plainview. At 54, he had finally accumulated some real wealth. So he went to Dallas and Fort Worth with the intent of selling his ranch to buy a bigger one. It was there that con men ensnared him in their sophisticated  plot. It went like this:

Norfleet got into a  seemingly casual conversation about mules in the lobby of the St. George Hotel in Dallas. He said that “to one of his upbringing, the most lonesome place in the world is a large city.” So he was happy to find someone of similar tastes and interests. This man, Hamlin, upon hearing Norfleet had a ranch to sell, said he just happened to know someone who might be interested in his land. That interested party,  Mr. Spencer, magically appeared and said they would need to go to the Adolphus to see another man. When they sat down in the lobby to wait, Spencer cleverly steered  Norfleet so that he’d sit in just the right place to discover a man’s pocket book “lost” in the crevice of the couch. The pocket book had “$240 in cash and a cashable bond for $100,000 dollars.” Mr. Stetson was the name on the Mason’s card inside. Spencer and Norfleet inquired at the desk for a Mr. Stetson, got his room number, and returned the pocket book to him.

Mr. Stetson – AKA Joe Furey – offered them both $100 reward. Norfleet refused.  Stetson told him that he was a stockbroker with the Dallas exchange and said, “Would you mind me placing that money on the market and would you accept what money it might earn?” Later that day Stetson gave Norfleet $800 as the amount his $100 earned. And that is how the hook was set. From there, much more money was made and eventually cash guarantees required by the fake exchange. When the con men cleared out on the last round, absconding with all of Norfleet’s money, he was left repeating to himself in a stunned haze, “Forty-five thousand dollars gone; $90,000 in debt; 54 years old.” If it happened today he’d be saying, “Seven-hundred-thousand-dollars gone; $1.5 million in debt; 54 years old.”

Most swindled people keep quiet about it. Some report it to police but just suffer the loss and go about rebuilding their lives. Furey, who conned many an Englishmen said that the British always handled the loss with such poise. But he resented Norfleet for taking it so personally.

So here is where you will want to pick up the book and get on the trail with Norfleet. He logs 30,000 miles pursuing these con men. Its’a great adventure and demonstrates an old cowboy’s enormous creativity and grit. He just wouldn’t quit. You can read his own telling of the story in his fast-moving autobiography, “Norfleet,” published in 1924. Or, you can read a more modern version historically contextualized by Amy Reading in “The Mark Inside.” Whichever you choose, cinch up your saddles nice and snug.  It’s gonna be a wild ride.

The Storyline

We create stories for many reasons. Stories help us remember things, stories add meaning to our lives, and stories also create hierarchies of value–that much of the time hide more than they reveal about the past.

In this edition of Two Guys on Your HeadDr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke talk about the psychology of the storyline.

Texas: A State That Loves Its Flag

By W.F. Strong

If you were ever to start a new country, one of the first tasks you’d have to undertake would be to design a flag. Are you really a country if you don’t have a flag to advertise your existence – a flag that can fly atop skyscrapers, state houses, schools and ships at sea? Now cities and even corporations have flags, as do organizations and social movements.

I’m proud to tell you that according to Ted Kaye, one of the world’s leading vexillologists – a fancy word for one who studies flags – the Texas flag is the best-selling of all the state flags. It also rates almost perfect in artistic design. That’s the conclusion of one landmark study by the North American Vexillological Association (try saying that after three beers at sea). The study rated all national, state and territorial flags of North America and found that only New Mexico’s flag had just a smidgen of a better design.

Ted Kaye says these are the five rules of good design.: first, keep it simple – so simple a child can draw it from memory. Use meaningful symbolism. Use two to three basic colors – no more than three. No lettering. No words. The design should speak for itself. Do you hear it saying Lone Star State? Yep. And finally, your design should be distinctive. I know what you’re thinking – the Chilean flag. There are accidental similarities, but there is no evidence at all that the Chilean design influenced ours.

Not only is the Texas flag the best-selling state flag, it is also displayed more in all its forms than any other state flag.

Drive down any neighborhood street in Texas and you will see the flag flying proudly in the Texas breeze on 30 and 40 foot poles in many a yard.  It’s displayed from wall mounts on porches or over garages. You will see it over car dealerships and on top of skyscrapers in cities. In the countryside, you’ll see it at the entrance to farms and ranches, perhaps with the Stars and Stripes next to it.

It’s at the beach, fluttering and snapping smartly behind four-wheel-drive pickups. Or on boats and at makeshift campsites and even over children’s forts in the woods. It’s found in dorm rooms and in shopping malls. It’s everywhere.

And when it’s not in cloth form, you will find it displayed in many a medium.  It’s painted on barns. You can’t drive very far in rural Texas without seeing a barn flag. I’ve never seen a Nebraska barn flag. I see many a Texas flag painted on gates, too. Beautiful. Never seen a Michigan flag gate, either. And though it’s not the same, I’d like to point out that we’re the only state with our own toast. There’s no Oregon toast. There’s no Florida-shaped waffle maker either.

Yes, the Texas flag is everywhere: t-shirts, swimsuits, towels, bikinis, boots, belt-buckles, earrings and tattoos. We have Texas flag picnic tables, tablecloths and stools. And if it’s not a flag, we have the Texas star as a stand-in, on the side of our houses, hanging on the wall in the kitchen, or on the apron we’re barbecuing with. I have even seen a Texas star barbecue grill cover.

John Steinbeck pointed out that the deep love and commitment Texans have for their state closely approximates that of a religion. Based on the affection we have for our symbols; it seems that we are an extraordinarily devout people. As this is radio I can’t end with the flag, but I can play Willie. You can hear Texas in his voice.

El Llano Estacado

By W. F. Strong

The Llano Estacado is an enormous mesa. It covers more than 37-thousand square miles of Texas and New Mexico. On this side of the state border it starts north of Amarillo and ends south of Odessa. But how did it get its name and what exactly does it mean? Turns out, there are about five different theories about that.

Today, the Llano Estacado has been immortalized in art. Just think of this song from Gary P. Nunn: “It’s the Llano Estacado, It’s the Brazos and the Colorado; Spirit of the people down here who share this land!”

One thing all the theories about its origin story agree on is that there’s a reason the name is Spanish. It’s credited at least in part to conquistador Francisco Coronado who called the area “Los Llanos” — the plains. And that’s where the stories begin to diverge.

The most common one is that Llano Estacado means “staked plains” because “estacado” is the past participle of “estacar,” a verb meaning “to stake” or “to stake out.” The belief was that the vast spaces of the mesa were so disorienting that early explorers and settlers needed to leave stakes in the ground to navigate in a straight line, and to have a direct line of retreat should they need it. Even Coronado’s Native American guides would shoot an arrow straight ahead and then walk to the arrow, and repeat the process over and over to keep from going in a circle. 

But others say that in the time of Coronado, the term “estacar” had a different meaning. It meant “palisaded plains,” or “stockaded plains,” looking like a fort. If you approach the caprock as Coronado did, and as I have done myself, west of Amarillo along the Canadian breaks, from a distance of 20 miles, the rise onto the caprock does indeed look like a fortress stretching as far as one can see. 

But here’s another bit of the puzzle — the great geographer and historian John Miller Morris tells us that Coronado never wrote the words “Llano Estacado.” But Coronado did leave us a detailed description of Lo Llano in a letter to the King of Spain: “…there is not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.” This brings us to Morris’s most compelling theory about the name. With no trees and shrubs available, explorers and hunters needed to “stake out” or hobble their horses at night or they’d be gone in the morning. 

All of the theories have their appeals.  But I doubt the origin of the name will ever be settled. Just like its name, the infinite flat land, the ocean of grass that once supported millions of buffalo, remains a romanticized landscape of mystery to this day.   

There’s a sublime book by Shelley Armitage called Walking the Llano. Ms. Armitage has lived on the Llano off and on most of her life and her book reminds me of magical works like Desert Solitaire and Goodbye to a River. She writes, “There’s been no poet of these plains . . . but there is a poetry of the plains. This part of the Llano exists . . . as a shape of time, requiring the rhythm of a habit of landscape, of the repetition of experiencing.” She quotes Mary Austin, “It’s the land that wants to be said.”

Ms. Armitage also ran on the Llano. She writes, “The running taught me something. I began to learn that the land is lyric. I could feel the rhythm of the land come into my legs, up into my chest and heart, and out my mouth as breath. Later it came out as writing.” Perhaps Shelley Armitage is the very poet of the plains she claims does not exist.  

Armitage also tells of the advice of an elder of the White Mountain Apaches, who said, 

“Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. . .  You must remember everything about [places]. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. 

Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise.”

We must do this for the Llano Estacado, in poetry and prose and song.

How Madame Curie’s Philanthropy Continues To Inspire

By W. F. Strong

A couple of years ago, there was a photograph published on Twitter of a group of radiation oncologists in the radiation treatment room at MD Anderson, all women, under the hashtag, “Women Who Curie.” They were celebrating the legacy of Madame Marie Curie and her pioneering work in radiology that daily inspires their mission. 

As I looked at the photograph of the nine doctors at MD Anderson, I realized that Madame Curie’s legacy was far greater than Nobel Prizes and scientific advancement.  She added the benefit of opening previously closed doors in science and medicine to women. Madame Curie was not just perceived as a female interloper seeking equality in disciplines generally reserved for men, but she was also an immigrant, a double minority at the Sorbonne. She was ignored and pushed aside and denied lab space and vital equipment. She succeeded by virtue of an iron will and unrelenting genius.  

Few people realize she passed up Bill Gates-type wealth by not seeking a would-be priceless patent for radium, the element she and her husband Pierre discovered. She said the element “belongs to the people.” That act of philanthropy paved the way for institutes like M.D. Anderson, and her pioneering work for women served to staff them with brilliant professionals, too. Sometimes I wonder how much further along the human race would be now had we not denied education to half of us for most of recorded time.  

One little known story about Madame Curie is that she feared at one point that she would not be able to complete her degree at the Sorbonne for lack of funds. She had resigned herself to the idea that she would have to remain in Poland and live a life as a tutor or a governess. 

Then came the miracle. She received, unexpectedly, the Alexandrovitch Scholarship of 600 rubles – about $300. She calculated that it was enough, if she lived meagerly, with little heat and less food, to complete her master’s degree. She did, graduating first in her class. And that was just the beginning. She would graduate a little over a year later with another degree in Mathematics. As soon as she took her first job, from her first paychecks, she pulled out 600 rubles and paid back the Alexandrovitch Foundation for the scholarship they had given her. This had never happened before. The foundation was shocked, but as Madame Curie’s daughter said of her mother: “In her uncompromising soul she would have judged herself dishonest if she had kept, for one unnecessary moment the money which now could serve as life buoy to another young girl.” Now, that’s paying back AND forward.  

Madame Curie went on to be the first female Ph.D. at the Sorbonne and the first female professor as well. In addition, she was awarded not one, but two Nobel Prizes, in different sciences – the first person, male or female, ever to achieve that distinction.  

So as I looked at the photograph of the women she inspired at MD Anderson, I thought of Madame Curie’s influential reach across a century, across vast oceans. MD Anderson doctors have received the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Award from the American Association for Women in Radiology four times in twenty years.  MD Anderson also maintains a sister institutional relationship with the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Cancer Center in Warsaw. Marie is still enlightening minds, inspiring the academically marginalized and healing the sick, even here in Texas. 

Jefferson Davis Highway: The Persistence Of A Confederate Memorial

By W.F. Strong

On July 29, 1925 — a full 60 years after the American Civil War — Miss Decca Lamar West of Waco, Texas, wrote a strongly worded letter to Chief Thomas H. MacDonald, the head of what was then the Federal Bureau of Public Roads. Miss West was an influential member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy  who was lobbying  for a coast to coast highway to honor the Former President of the Confederate States. After all, President Abraham Lincoln had a highway already that stretched from New York City to San Francisco. She wrote:

The Jefferson Davis Highway directors are doing constructive work in every state, and patriotically the women of the United States feel that nothing could tend to the greater unity and understanding of the people than that two transcontinental highways should be named for the two great leaders of the critical period of American history. 

The honorary highway of which she wrote was almost fully realized. Today, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway still exists – but only in bits and pieces – from Virginia to California. You’ll find United Daughters of the Confederacy markers along highways in Georgia and Louisiana and Arizona. But New Mexico had them all removed from along I-10 two years ago. You can see the Texas markers along U.S. 90 and 290 and I-35 and along Highways 59 and 77 South toward the border.  Others have been removed — including those in Elgin, San Antonio, and San Marcos.  

Brownsville just removed its marker after a contentious debate. The marker, originally placed on Palm Boulevard by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1927, was later moved to a city park after the state passed on certifying that memorial route. It was a simple, large boulder with a plaque praising Jefferson Davis. Some wanted the boulder  removed altogether because it honored Davis who was a traitor to the U.S. Others felt that removing it would be an attempt to erase history.  

My contention is that the monument itself tried to erase history. It was one of at least 250 markers placed along U. S. roadways which tried to re-brand Jefferson Davis, to make the enslaver equal to the emancipator. The plaque on the boulder in Brownsville was stone cold propaganda.

The plaque identifies Davis as President of the C.S.A. The word “Confederacy” is not spelled out there. Were they hiding the word from Davis’s resume? He is lauded as a United States soldier and Senator. It says he resigned as Senator, but it omits the fact that he resigned to create a new country where slavery would be forever legal. Finally, he is declared a martyr, but a martyr for what? Hundreds of thousands died for his cause but he didn’t.

President Ulysses S. Grant believed the contentiousness that resulted from the Civil War would, in time, pass. In 1885, in his famous memoirs, he wrote: “As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.” And yet these arguments over monuments persist.

How Texas Became A Desert

By W. F. Strong

To much of the world, and to many people in the U.S. who have never been to Texas, the state is a vast desert. It is not the Sahara, but instead a high-plains arid region studded with rocky mesas, sweeping wall-like cliffs, dusty canyons, and sometimes adorned with thousands of Saguaro cacti – native to Arizona, not Texas. Certainly there are parts of west Texas that have some aspects of these images, but more than half the state is green with rolling hills, lush forests and vibrant coastal plains. Yet the desert images dominate minds in distant lands. For that, we can thank Hollywood. 

There are many John Wayne westerns with story lines that weave through Texas, but the films were shot in Utah and northern or southern Arizona. The most jarring example to me is The Searchers. To my mind, The Searchers was John Wayne’s best film. Here’s a clip where Mrs. Jorgensen, a tough frontier woman, defines these early Texans: 

It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year and next, and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Someday this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.” 

As she says this on her front porch, she is looking at a view of Monument Valley, Utah.  Wayne made five movies in Monument Valley, even though two of them, The Searchers and Rio Grande, had storylines that based them in Texas. Wayne actually said, “Monument Valley is the place where God put the West.”

Another Wayne film that is shocking to a native Texan is The Comancheros. The plot has Wayne playing Texas Ranger Jake Cutter. Great name. He arrests an outlaw for murder on a boat arriving in Galveston and tells him he will return him to Louisiana: 

Regret:   Well, I’ve committed no crime in Texas.

Cutter:    Right. But you killed a man in Louisiana. My job’s to take you to the Ranger Headquarters where a Louisiana Marshall will pick you up. They’ll take you back to New Orleans and the gallows. You know we’re getting real obliging to the states down here in Texas. A lot of folks want to join the Union. 

Regret:  I have a couple of hundred in gold in that jacket. That give you any ideas,  friend? 

Cutter:   I’ve got what you might call a weakness. I’m honest. 

As Cutter exits the boat in Galveston with his handcuffed prisoner, Paul Regret, in tow, he walks right into Southeastern Utah where the film was shot in Professor Valley and the La Sal Mountains, among other places near Moab. Stunning country for cinemascope technology to capture, but not Texas.    

Rio Bravo and El Dorado were two John Wayne Films with Texas settings shot in and around the Sonoran Desert west of Tucson. The landscape there is dominated by thousands of saguaros, enormous 40-foot cacti that look like sentinels of the desert.  Such sights don’t exist in Texas.  

Clint Eastwood’s For a Few Dollars More is set in and around El Paso, but it was actually shot in the Tabernas Desert near Almería, Spain. Fort Bravo, also called Hollywood, Texas, is a movie set town built there in the sixties and has served as a backdrop for many classic Western films like Once Upon a Time in the West and the famous Spaghetti Westerns. Not all of those have Texas storylines, but some do. For a Few Dollars More does, and at least in this case, the landscape of Almería is a good match for the El Paso region.  

Two films more true to Texas in landscape were Giant, shot almost completely around Marfa, and No Country for Old Men, filmed mostly in Texas, but some in New Mexico.  Texas Rising troubled some Texans for two reasons: one, being shot almost entirely in Mexico, which seemed sacrilegiously ironic. And two, for scenes of rugged mountains around Victoria, Texas. I think they got their Victorias mixed up. A more recent film called Hell or High Water, starring Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger chasing bank robbers in the Panhandle, was largely shot in New Mexico.  

So you see, movie-Texas depicts a greater land of diversity than Texas actually has within it. To much of the world, we are Arizona and Utah and New Mexico, and we are Mexico and Italy and Spain. Mostly desert. Everything is bigger in Texas because Hollywood has subconsciously created a much wider world in the collective mind of moviegoers. 

El Rio Bravo

By W.F. Strong

Ten years ago I was touring the great Catedral de Sevilla, in Spain, when I got into an unexpectedly informative conversation about Texas with an 80-year-old guide of that majestic church. When he discovered that I was from South Texas, he asked me, in perfect British English, “Did you know that your river there in Texas is named after our river, the Guadalquivir?”

I said I didn’t understand how that could be so. How do you get Rio Grande from Guadalqivir? He said, “Guadalquivir is a Spanish distortion of the Arabic, meaning “the brave river” or “the great river.”  So, when the original cowboys of Andalucia from southern Spain settled in northern Mexico, they thought the river looked like the Guadalquivir, so they called it the “Rio Bravo.”

Well, that was one more origin story to add to many others that claim to tell how the Rio Grande River, or the Rio Bravo – as it is known on the Mexican side – got its name. I can’t speak for or against the veracity of the guide’s story, but as a story, it’s interesting, which is the first rule of stories.

Some say Álvarez de Pineda first named the Rio Grande, El Rio de Las Palmas, in 1519.  But others say he was really at the mouth of the Pánuco River near Tampico – much farther south in Mexico – not the Rio Grande. But we have to consider the Pineda Stone as evidence, which was found deep in the sand near the mouth of the Rio Grande in 1974, with his name etched on, along with the number of men and ships he had with him. Many believe it is fake, but just as many feel it’s real.

We do know that explorer Juan de Oñate called the river El Rio Grande in writing in 1598. Strangely, Cabeza de Vaca crossed it 70 years earlier on his wild trek across Texas and Mexico, but never mentioned the river at all.

The river has also been called Rio Grande del Norte and Rio Bravo del Norte. Today, we know for sure that it is called the Rio Grande on the Texas side, and the Rio Bravo on the Mexican side. At one time it was certainly brave and grand, with steamboats piloted by Texas legends like Richard King and his business partner Mifflin Kenedy, who traveled 130 miles inland all the way to Rio Grande City, and in a rare case, all the way to Laredo.

Though the river, once half-a-mile wide at some points, certainly earned its name, now we might call it El Arroyo Valiente, or Courageous Creek, because, along its 2,000-mile journey from Colorado to the Gulf, it’s often no bigger than a creek. So, many cities and towns along its bank pull water from it that is a mere trickle of its former self.

No wonder Will Rogers once said that the Rio Grande is the only river he “ever saw that needed irrigation.”

And down toward the mouth, the river is incredibly crooked, like an enormous water moccasin sunning itself in lazy loops and curls. Gen. Zachary Taylor said his soldiers believed it was so crooked there seemed to be only one shore. I can attest to this myself. I once rode my motorcycle along the northern trails that follow the curves of the riverside, but my eyes told me otherwise. It’s terribly disorienting. Riverboat pilots said it was 100 horse miles from Brownsville to Rio Grande City, but 175 river miles.

The river is to Texas and northern Mexico what the Nile is to Egypt. It is quite simply life itself, and always has been. And there are still quiet, isolated spots along the river. Ones where I found myself looking north across the water, even though I was not on the Mexican side where enormous canyon walls rise toward the heavens 2,000 feet overhead. Where exotic parrots fly in screeching flocks through the wild palm orchards – places you can sit and channel the words author John Graves wrote about a different Texas river: “If you are lucky and reverent, and hush for a moment the doubts in your head, sometimes God will whisper in your ear.”

Preservation

This poem was made by request. You can share your ideas for the Typewriter Rodeo on social media or by emailing TexasStandard@KUT.org.

Squeaking And Slamming Screened Doors

This Typewriter Rodeo poem was inspired by a story shared by a Texas Standard listener. Share your ideas on social media or email TexasStandard@kut.org.

Politics and The Green New Deal: Ben Lilliston

“The climate crisis is an emergency, it is a crisis and so we need to make major, major changes in our agriculture system.” Ben Lilliston is the Director of Climate Change and Rural strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. He spoke with The Secret Ingredient team–Raj Patel, Tom Philpott, and Rebecca McInroy, about how the Green New Deal came about what has to happen in order for the GND to become a reality.

The Green New Deal for Agriculture: Jim Goodman and Raj Patel

“We need to change society so everybody can fit in and everyone can afford to live in a decarbonized society.” – Jim Goodman 

In this episode of The Secret Ingredient host Raj Patel plays double-duty — he is not just a host, but joins Jim Goodman as a guest. The two discuss what A Green New Deal for Agriculture could look like with the rest of  The Secret Ingredient team–Tom Philpott, and Rebecca McInroy.

Jim Goodman is an organic dairy farmer in Wisconsin and board member of Family Farm Defenders. He also blogs for the National Family Farm Coalition.