Many Texas Standard listeners are thankful for the “Stories from Texas” brought to us by our regular commentator WF Strong. Today’s story is a little different — he explains why.
It’s June. Watermelon season. All my life, June has meant watermelon season and I don’t mean it’s just the time of year to eat them. As a kid, it also meant a time to work, and work hard, from can’t-see-in-the-morning to can’t-see-at-night, for no more than a little over a dollar an hour to get the melons out of the fields. So every June, I can’t help but drive by the fields and nostalgically marvel at the stamina we once enjoyed. Now in our sixties, my friends from those days often hypothetically wonder how long we think we could last in those fields today. The general belief is about thirty minutes… providing the ambulance got there on time.
In my little town, as was true for many ag towns across Texas, we thought of watermelons as our fourth sport. The fall started with football and then we had basketball and baseball, and then, watermelons. We thought we should have been able to letter in watermelons. For those who played football, pitching melons half the summer was ideal conditioning. There were three kinds – grays, stripes and black diamonds. The grays were kind of like footballs – a little heavier of course. The stripes were enormous – and averaged 35 pounds or more. The black diamonds were the most despised because they were heavy and round like a medicine ball. Hard to pitch and hard to catch. The best thing about watermelon season was being able, when tired, to cut open a beautiful melon in the field and to eat just the cool, sweet heart of it, and move on. Nature’s Gatorade.
There was a hierarchy in the fields. You’d start out as a pitcher, making a dollar, twenty-five an hour, at least that was the going rate in the late 1960s. You would work with a crew of four or five and take a large trailer, generally pulled by a tractor, out into the fields to load with melons. The crew would fan out and then, like a bucket brigade, toss the cut melons in their path to the next guy in line and he’d pitch it to the next guy who’d throw it up to the man in the trailer. You didn’t want to be the man working by the trailer because you had to handle every melon and lift it up over your head for the guy in the trailer to set it down with reasonable care so as not to break it open. The best job was to be either the man in the trailer or the outside man who handled the least number of melons, only those in his path. Yet it didn’t matter which job was yours, it was still brutal work. You worked in the giant sauna of the Texas summer, often in 100 degrees with no wind and stifling humidity. But it was about the only work you could get at 13 or 14, so you gladly did it and when you got your 80 dollars at the end of the week, you felt rich if not sunburnt and tired. And you longed for the day you could move up to cutter or stacker. Being a cutter was a good job because you didn’t pitch anymore. You went down the rows and identified, by sight, the melons that were ripe and ready to harvest and the proper weight for the store wanting them (H-E-B for instance – grays 18-to-24 pounds). You would cut them from the vine and stand on them on end for the pitchers to come along later and get them. The only downside was you were the first to come upon the rare rattler hidden in the vines. For this job you made $3.00 an hour. Double the pay. Knowledge is power.
The final and best job in the field was stacker. You might get to be stacker by your third or fourth season, when you are 17 or so. You’d work inside the big 18-wheeler trailers and stack the melons “to ride.” The little trailers, or pickup trucks would come in from the fields and the line would form to pitch the melons to you inside the trailer. Stacking was an art form. Taking into account the weight and shape of the melons you’d stack them into tiers about 8 or 9 rows high, nice and tight, so they wouldn’t shift and break on the long ride north.
The best stackers would start the season in the Rio Grande Valley and follow harvest north all the way up into the Panhandle where there would be a late summer and fall harvest. They’d make 25 dollars per 18 wheeler. Serious money, then.
The greatest thing about those years and that work, at least for many men (and some women) who worked in those fields, is that they say it taught them a work ethic that has never deserted them.
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.
By W. F. Strong
A while back I had occasion to travel across 400 miles of Texas, about half the state, with my older brother, Redneck Dave. We call him that out of admiration for his unbending and unapologetic devotion to life as he sees it. He loves his nickname, by the way. Wears it proudly.
He is one who is not particularly talkative on long drives, but does share a few observations between long silences. In fact, he’s not very talkative anywhere. Even if six or seven guys are sitting around at the house shootin’ the bull, he’s not likely to say much. He’ll just be in the corner quietly whittling a stick. He doesn’t carve it into anything, he mostly whittles big sticks into little ones and then starts on another stick. Once in a while he’ll look up and share a thought or correct someone on something, and it is then that people pay attention because he’s got a tiny bit of Confucious in him, a tendency to nail down the truth in a way that sticks with you.
When I travel with him, which is rare because he doesn’t much care to travel, he is different from most riders because he doesn’t have a phone to distract him. He just looks out the window and watches the world go by, seeing things the average person would miss–because they’d be scrolling through their phone–or because the things that fascinate him wouldn’t even register in most of our minds. It’s like having your personal color commentator along for the ride.
So I made a note of a few things Redneck Dave said on our drive across Texas. They are these:
“Let’s take the FM roads as much as we can. Stay off the Interstates. I don’t want to be looking at the butt-ends of 18 wheelers all the way.”
“I’d like to meet the guy that built that fence. Always liked a man who could build a good fence. We’d get along, him and me. Look at that. He’s got eight inch round posts ever’ forty feet set in Quickrete and t-posts every ten foot in between. King Ranch fencing. Straight as a West Texas highway and tight as a banker. That wudn’t stretched with a come-along, I’ll tell you that for sure. That was done with a tractor. Can’t get a fence like that that tight with just a come-along.”
“They built all these expressway bypasses around these little towns. Terrible thing. A bypass will save a man with a bad heart, but it’ll kill a town. Sad to see it come to this. These little towns is what made Texas Texas. Hell, where do you think the talent and know how in them big cities come from? It came from these little towns. They’re killin’ off the farm teams.”
“You’re drivin.’ You can’t look, but there’s a beautiful Brahman Bull back there about 200 yards in that pasture. Must be a trouble-maker. Appears to be pastured all alone, separated from the herd.”
“That’s hell of a big pothole you just hit. I think you had to aim for half a mile to get lined up right.”
“These big ole windmills they have. What’s that? Turbines they call ‘em? Yeah. Well, to me they’re just windmills on steroids. I’m not against ‘em for what they do, but they sure do ugly up the place. Do they need so many? Looks like greed won out over pretty.”
“Heads up. You got a big freight truck comin’ up behind you doin’ 90. Ever notice that as you get close to a big city, about 40 miles out, everybody drives faster? The closer to your destination, faster you drive. Not true for old people though. They’re all closer to their final destination in life, and they drive slower. You’d think teenagers would drive slow, given all the time they have, and old people would be in a hurry, but it’s the opposite.”
“That was a good lunch. Used to they’d give you a glass of ice water before you sat down. Now you have to buy it–for three bucks. Not even Texas water. Comes from Japan or one of them snowy countries in Europe. ”
“I’m gonna have to see a man about a horse pretty soon. No, I don’t want to go to no rest stop. Eight-hundred people in those places. Might as well take a number. Just pull over there by that fence. I prefer the rancho grande. No line, no waiting. And I always go on the road side of the fence. Government land.”
“You need to lose weight. Here’s my diet for you. Work more than you sit. Don’t eat if you ain’t hungry. Big meal at noon. No second helpings. No eating after supper, which is at 7.”
“Thanks for the ride, brother. I’ll get on down there to see you soon. Just have to wait a while. DPS ain’t real happy with me right now. Supposedly I owe them some money. Best I’m not out on the public highways just now and sadly there ain’t enough dirt roads to reach you. When they settle down I’ll come see ya.”
Redneck Dave is always a delight. I’m sure most Texas families have one of their own, or wish they did.
By W. F. Strong
If I have an addiction, it’s definitely books. I read about two books a week and order two more I’m unlikely to ever get to. But I like them on the shelf as backup the way survivalists hoard food supplies. Admittedly, I’m often short of shelves. When you have more books than shelves, you know you’re overdoing it.
I’m the book equivalent of the cat lady. I take in more books than I should. I recently took a pickup load of recyclable metals to a solid waste depot. As I paid the man I noticed he had 20 books on a little shelf outside his office. I said, “Well, you have plenty to read there when things are slow.” He said, “No, I’m not much of a reader but I can’t stand seeing good books go to the dump so I save ’em. These are rescue books for anyone who wants them.” I rescued 5 of the rescue books. To show the extent of my addiction, I also have a massive stash in the cloud, just in case I need a book when traveling or when stuck at the dentist’s office.
Doing some math I figured that if I live to my allotted average age, I figure I have only 2,000 books left to read in my life. And probably only 1500 because I’ll re-read 500 of my favorites, leaving 1500 new books over the next 20 years – out of billions in the world. A sad fraction. So, I must choose well. To borrow from the old dicho, “Life is too short to read bad books.”
So how does one choose well? First, you have recommendations from friends whose taste you trust. As I am into Texana books, I rely also on sites like Texas Booklover on Facebook for suggestions worth my time. But my favorite of all are books about books. Larry McMurtry has an exquisite book called simply Books. It’s truly spellbinding. A similar sort of work that I want to recommend to you today is 101 Essential Texas Books by Glenn Dromgoole and Carlton Stowers, both authors and experts on Texas literature.
Each book in the 101 is tightly summarized. You’ll find your favorites here for sure: All the Pretty Horses, The Time it Never Rained, Lone Star by Fehrenbach, Michener’s Texas, Friday Night Lights, and Lonesome Dove. But you will also find numerous gems you’ve perhaps never come across.
I like that the collection is in genres. You have first-rate works in history, literature – in this case books about books and writing – fiction, people, place, law and order, sports, food and drink, and books for young readers.
Here’s a few I think are lesser known standouts:
Texas Post Office Murals by Philip Parisi is a full color book of 115 photographs of depression era murals painted in Texas Post Offices across the state. They were painted by famous artists like Tom Lea, Xavier Gonzalez, and Jerry Bywaters and were meant to lift the spirits of people going through hard times.
A History of Texas Music by Gary Hartman. Not limited to Country-Western, Hartman covers “German, Czech, Tejano, Cajun, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues.”
100,000 Hearts: A Surgeon’s Memoir by Denton Cooley. It’s an autobiography by one of the world’s best heart surgeons of all time. And I’m not just saying that because one of those 100,000 hearts still beating is mine.
Under the category of “place” you have Goodbye to a River by John Graves, and A.C. Greene’s A Personal Country, as one would expect. The lesser known standout for me is Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains by the Texas Poet Walt McDonald and Texas’ genius photographer Wyman Meinzer. It is a stunning book wherein poems illuminate photographs and photographs animate poems.
Rainwater by Sandra Brown. Sandra Brown is best known for her bestsellers in romance and suspense so this work is a departure for her. Set in a small Texas town during the depression, it has been compared to The Grapes of Wrath because it is the story of a tough woman barely surviving while running a boarding house in the dust bowl.
That’s a quick preview. Check out the 101 Essential Texas Books and you’ll be sure to find many you’ll cherish having on your shelves, or if you’re like me, stacked on your desk or on top of the dining room table, piano, refrigerator, night table, etc.
In this edition of Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, talk about why our brains make sense of the world through stories, and what problems this can cause.