If at First You Don’t Secede, Try, Try Again

January 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

Let the nonsense begin!

On January 16, Rep. James White, R-Hillister, filed House Bill 568, AKA the “Texas Self-Sufficiency Act,” which would require the state to study the effects of cutting financial ties with the federal government. White says he filed the bill because the state needs to be prepared for the possibility that the federal government could not meet its financial obligations because of “fiscal dysfunction” in Washington, D.C. Which prompts the Old Curmudgeon to offer up an alternative moniker for HB 568: “The Chicken Little Act.”

White’s bill would create a “select committee to evaluate the effects of reduction in or elimination of federal funding on the state budget due to federal fiscal policy; the state budget gets about a third of its revenue from federal funding.

“We always talk about 10th Amendment rights, but there are 10th Amendment responsibilities. If Texas is an independent nation or if we continue to be a part of the United States, which I am for, we still need to have a strong Texas,” he says.

“We love the United States. We want to keep the 50 states together,” White has insisted. “We do not support secession, though a significant group of my constituents do.”

Texas’ motto is “Friendship.” Perhaps that was true in 1930 when the Legislature adopted it. I wasn’t around yet to know for sure, but since Texas’ last lynching took place in 1935, I’m betting that then as now, friendship in Texas was selective.

HB 568 is not intended as a call for secession, White insists. Well, Honorable Representative White (As in “For Brutus is an honorable man”) the reaction of many other patriotic Texans (including the Old Curmudgeon) might be, “Methinks thou insisteth too loudly.”

BTW, the recent petition for Texas secession filed on the White House’s “We the People” website has received more than 125,000 signatures, although many of the individuals who have signed are not actually from Texas.

The Old Curmudgeon wonders how many of these co-signers have actually thought through all of the negative ramifications of secession (which far outweigh the few – if any – benefits). But that topic deserves its own time and place.

One of the highlights of this session is the general disregard our legislators have for the U.S. Constitution, some of whom, in addition to the White Knight, are proposing to illegally override several other areas of federal legislation for the “good of Texas.”

Jim-foolery like HB 568 crops up like Johnson grass or poison ivy every legislative session. And why, you ask? Because it’s part of the lege’s DNA, especially when it comes to monetary matters.

The Old Curmudgeon suggests the Texas Legislature adopt for itself a motto that truly reflects its wisdom (financial and otherwise) and moral fiber, such as:

In mĭnĭmis cauti, in maxĭmis negligentes,” or “Cautious in small matters, careless in great.”

And speaking of mottos, here’s one the lege should take to heart, if it had a salt lick of sense:

Vir prudens non contra ventum mingit,” or “A wise man does not urinate against the wind.”

Exploring the distinguished history of the lege’s fiscal wisdom could fill a book. Ol’ Curmudge will settle for recounting just a few of the more memorable moments, spread out over several installments.

Early on the morning of October 11, 1855, the adjutant general’s office and living quarters, a log cabin, was destroyed by fire. Adjutant General James S. Gillett was aroused by the noise of fire close to him. He rushed from his room to the adjoining, records room and discovered it and the archives in flames. The window shutter was open and had no doubt been forced open. The fire was burning so rapidly that Adjutant General Gillett was barely able to save a few clothes and get out alive.; in a few more minutes his sleeping apartment would have been enveloped in flames. If there had been a breeze the fire would have spread to surrounding buildings.

All the records of the office and a large number of important papers filed in the cases of applicants for relief were destroyed. It was the work of an incendiary, probably by some person or persons implicated in forgery schemes, regarding state land grants to army veterans, whose guilt would be found in the records in the Adjutant General’s office. General Gillett had carefully avoided having any fire kept in his room for some time past. As mentioned, the office’s window had been found open and the fire appeared to have been built on the floor. The fire created a very strong feeling of indignation against its perpetrators.

The House of Representatives had reported in 1852 that protection and preservation practices and procedures were insufficient to protect these valuable records and recommended an appropriation to rectify this shortcoming. The records, including the invaluable muster roles of Texas Revolution veterans, were also in poor condition.

A Col. Boggess, deputized by the House of Representatives, found one of two suspects, a man named Hines (also often referred to as “Haynes”), near Rusk, in November. Hines confessed, and in so doing, implicated John. J. Blankenship and B.J. Lewis, saying that they had promised him $1000 for burning the adjutant general’s office, but after he had fired the office, the pair paid only half of the amount promised. Warrants were sworn out in Travis County for their arrest.

Meanwhile, in December 1855, a fire at Johns and Gamble, painters, was only just contained. It almost destroyed the old treasury building. If it hadn’t been contained, there’s no telling where it might have spread. There was then some talk of organizing a fire company, but as the State Gazette observed, “The excitement will last a few days, then die off and not again be revived until another calamity will admonish the citizens of Austin of the utter insecurity of their property against the ravages of fire.”

A special committee of the sixth legislature reported on January 8, 1856, that the vague and uncertain testimony of military service then in effect for land warrant eligibility made it possible for dishonest persons to obtain a large amount of bounty and donation warrants by forgery. It was alleged that some of the parties concerned in the forgeries were responsible for the fire, so as to destroy all evidence against them.

Two years earlier Gillett had told the legislature of the importance of placing these documents in a fire proof building. Testifying before the committee, Gillett said, “Just then they were seized with a keen fit of economy and refused. They can now see the result of their unwise parsimoniousness. ‘Pennywise — pound-foolish.'”

As we shall see, that phrase, “Pennywise – pound-foolish,” will keep turning up like a bad penny in reference to our esteemed legislative “corpus dementis” in successive installments of this topic.


Green Grow the Lilacs, Red Flows the Ketchup: Tex Ritter and the Fickle Finger of Fame

January 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

On January 26, 1931, the Theatre Guild’s “Green Grow the Lilacs” opened on Broadway at the Guild Theater. A Western show with cowboy songs, “Green Grow the Lilacs” was set in pioneer Oklahoma and the Theatre Guild would rework it into the enormous hit, “Oklahoma!”, in 1943.

Green Grow the Lilacs” made Woodard Maurice “Tex” Ritter a star for the first time. The show’s cowboy and folk songs were the type of music Ritter had studied and collected during his years (1922 to 1927) at the University of Texas.

When Ritter first heard that the Theatre Guild was putting together “Green Grow the Lilacs,” he was part of the cast of “The New Moon.” While “The New Moon” was playing in Chicago late in 1929, Ritter enrolled as a law student at Northwestern University, where he had appeared as “The Singing Lecturer.” But when “The New Moon” moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, and then to Indianapolis, Ritter was forced to miss his final law school exams.

Then Ritter heard that the Theatre Guild was putting together “Green Grow the Lilacs.” When he auditioned in the fall of 1930, his drawl — which had negated any speaking role in The New Moon — proved an invaluable asset. He read his lines with a natural twang, and then sang cowboy tunes in his matchless style, prompting actress-singer and music consultant Margaret Larkin to declare, “This boy’s authentic.”

Ritter was cast as Cord Elam, and as understudy for Curly McClain, the male lead part. During three musical interludes between scenes, Ritter’s character led the other cowboys and cowgirls in singing such cowboy standards as “Git Along Little Dogies,” “Goodbye Old Paint,” and “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” In Scene Four, Ritter soloed on the classic “The Old Chisholm Trail.” Ritter wore fancy stitched cowboy boots, checkered shirt, red bandanna, and a felt hat.

Following rehearsals the show first opened at the Tremont Theater in Boston on December 8, 1930. It moved on for runs in Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Baltimore before opening on Broadway. The program defined for its New York patrons such cowpoke terms as “Dogies” and “Mavericks” and “Shivaree.” The set featured a rustic, turn-of-the-century farmhouse interior. “The whole affair is likable,” remarked one reviewer. The reviews were favorable, and there was special praise for the “old songs born and reared humbly in the West.”

Green Grow the Lilacs” ran for eight weeks on Broadway and then hit the road again, playing Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago. Ritter and Everett Cheetham roomed together. Ritter’s exuberant performance of his cowboy songs made him one of the hits of the show, while Cheetham, who played banjo, attracted special attention with his rendition of his own composition, “Blood on the Saddle.”

Before the show left Chicago, Ritter and Everett auditioned for radio work at NBC’s studios in Chicago and were offered attractive contracts, with work to begin within a few weeks. They eagerly signed, because after its Chicago engagement, Green Grow the Lilacs was scheduled for only one more week, in Detroit.

They traveled by train back to New York, where Cheetham had stored his car, and drove to Chicago, where they learned that they would be working in NBC’s New York studios. They returned to New York, made rehearsal tapes, and then went on the air. Ritter performed his songs and dialogue capably, but the microphone scared Cheetham “to death,” and his discomfort was obvious to listeners. After a couple of weeks NBC canceled the pair. Cheetham went home to Wyoming, while Ritter decided to visit Texas.

After his visit to Nederland and Austin, Ritter was back in New York by the fall of 1931. He could not find theater work, so he sang for his supper at Greenwich Village, where his staggering rendition of “Rye Whiskey” was a hit. He regularly made the rounds of theatrical and radio agencies, but landed only a few radio commercials. At Thanksgiving he found only ten cents in his pocket. “That time I took my dime down to a restaurant and ordered french fries and poured ketchup all over them,” he reminisced. “This Greek that ran the joint gave me hell for using so much of his ketchup.”

But with the dawning of 1932, Ritter won the role of “Sage Brush Charlie” in The Roundup, a revival of a 1907 romantic comedy that had made Fatty Arbuckle a star. This updated version included Western music during the interludes between the four acts, a device adapted from Green Grow the Lilacs. Ritter sang and played the type of cowboy ballads that had been such a popular feature of Green Grow the Lilacs.

The Roundup opened at New York’s Majestic Theater on March 7, 1932. The reviewer for the New York Herald-Tribune wrote that “Tex Ritter is excellent as a bronco buster,” while the critic for the New York Evening Post found that Ritter “has an exceptionally winning personality.” Otherwise, The Roundup did not fare well with reviewers. The best seats in the house cost only one dollar, but crowds did not materialize, and The Roundup folded after a short run.

Ritter could not find another theatrical role. Aware that the American Record Corporation was producing Western recordings by radio singer Gene Autry, Ritter approached Art Satherly, head of ABC’s hillbilly division. Satherly had seen Ritter in Green Grow the Lilacs, and he let the singer record “The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball.” Ritter accompanied himself on the guitar. The song was recorded on October 31, 1932, but was never released.

Nevertheless, Ritter’s recording career had started, however haltingly, and he would go on to become the country western star we remember and revere today.



The (Non)Sense God Gave a Governor

January 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Several years ago, an old friend who was then political director of a Texas political party that shall go unnamed, said, in so many words, that you have to be insane to want to run for political office. Or, as the old saying goes, be lacking in “the sense God gave a goose.”

With that sage insight in mind, let us step into the “Way Back” machine for a trip back to the Austin of 1882, back to a time when whores were paid professionals, not amateurs putting out for free, and gore was blood and guts, not some guy who claims he invented the internet.

It was a golden era when Austin was truly weird (thanks to world-class eccentrics like Professor Adolphus Von Damos) and genuinely funny, thanks to Texas Siftings, a humor and satire weekly that had started up the year before.

“Casting asparagus” (as Kinky Friedman likes to say) on Texas politicians, has been a time honored pursuit since the earliest days of the republic, when candidates for high office regularly committed suicide because of the calumnies heaped upon them like jalapenos on a plate of nachos.

In June 1838, Supreme Court justice James Collingsworth, Attorney General Peter Grayson, and Mirabeau Lamar were locked in a bitter, three-way race for the presidency of the Republic. Peter Grayson had reluctantly agreed to be the Sam Houston party candidate for president that year. His candidacy was passive, since after initially declining he agreed to be minister plenipotentiary to the United States. On June 20 he left Galveston for Washington. July 8 found him in Bean’s Station, northeast of Knoxville. That evening, he wrote of the terrible mental “fiend that possessed me” and bemoaned his acceptance of the presidential nomination, which had led to falsified, bitter campaign charges against him, so bitter that the next morning, July 9, he fatally shot himself.

On July 11, Collingsworth drowned in Galveston Bay, reportedly following “a week of drunkenness.” Whether he jumped or fell into the water is not certain, but it was generally assumed that he committed suicide, unable to stand the heat of political battle. Now unopposed, Lamar went on to win the election.

They would have laughed off what passes for grave political insult today.

These suicides, along with the suicide 20 years later of the Republic of Texas’ last president, Anson Jones, after failing in his quest to become one of Texas’ U.S. senators, gradually led to reforms in the nature and intensity of political attacks. Slander and asparagus took on a more humorous nature, as exemplified by the late Molly Ivins and a century earlier, Texas Siftings.

Several months ago, the Blunderbuss reprinted a March 1882 Siftings article, “A State Library Not Wanted,” that congratulated the sitting lege for its wisdom and fiscal acumen. It must be remembered that the wisdom of the legislature’s majority has not wavered over the last 130 years, only the name of party affiliation.

A few months earlier, Siftings had formally endorsed Austin’s own Professor Damos as the Democratic candidate in the 1882 race for Governor of Texas.

Any comparisons between then and now will be drawn by the reader. The Blunderbuss presents it solely for the humor contained within.

“If Governor [Oran} Roberts persists in refusing to become a gubernatorial candidate for a third term, we beg leave to suggest to the Bourbon Democracy of Texas that they consider carefully the claims Prof. Damos, of Austin, has on the party.

“The professor is a crazy man who has for years been going around the streets of Austin carrying in his arms a bundle of newspapers. He lives on charity and the draining of beer kegs.

“Like many of the gubernatorial candidates, whose names have been suggested, Professor Damos is entirely unknown outside of the town in which he lives. This appears to be an indispensable qualification of the Texas gubernatorial candidate this year, hence it becomes necessary that we should inform the people of Texas of the manner and habits of the man who is worthy to succeed Governor Roberts, and carry out the policy of the Bourbon Democracy of Texas.

“In the first place, the great qualification of Prof. Damos to carry out the Roberts philosophy is that he is hopelessly insane. In carrying out the Bourbon policy he has the advantage over Roberts that he never changes his mind. Roberts changes his mind continually, although the change is not always for the better. He has changed his mind about free schools and immigration. He has occasional lucid intervals. No man who changes his mind in the least or has a single lucid interval, is worthy of being the standard bearer of the Bourbon Democracy of Texas. Professor Damos never changes his mind, and he would not know what a lucid interval is if he were to see a dozen of them. In fact, Damos has no mind to change, hence as a representative of the party he has no equal. Why the Texas Bourbons have not displaced Roberts and made Damos their standard bearer, years and years ago, is utterly incomprehensible to us. Damos is more in harmony with the traditions of the party, and less contaminated with modern heresy about free schools, protection to life and property than either Roberts, Ireland, Coke or any of the would-be Bourbons who are aspiring to be somebody in the party.

“But to return to Professor Damos — the coming man. There is nothing the true blue Bourbon Texas Democracy detests as much as style. Plug hats, clean shirts, stylish clothes and dignified manners savor of aristocratic inclinations, and are calculated to undermine our republican institutions. This being so, Damos is the man to save the country. His clothes are in such a condition that they would have to be washed and repaired before they would be fit to throw away. In summer he frequently goes without shoes and stockings, and he is much given to picking up cigar stumps out of the gutter, and enjoying a quiet smoke in a back alley. He never washes, and could not identify a piece of soap if he were to see it. Governor Roberts has of late years departed from Democratic traditions by dressing up in a tolerably presentable manner, although his hair needs trimming right now. If he keeps on, and he usually does keep on, he will be little better than an aristocrat like Arthur, hence the election of the people will be made with Damos than with Roberts.

“Governor Roberts is very accommodating in signing pardons, thus giving expression to the natural sympathy the Bourbons have with the criminal elements of society, but Damos will sign anything. He would turn out all the convicts, which would add greatly to the strength of the party, which action would also be in harmony with its record in the past.

“When it comes to literary attainments, Roberts has nothing to brag about over Damos, although it must be admitted that as an idiotic production, Governor Robert’s book on Texas is a pretty strong card. It is also true that an Alabama university has conferred the L.L. D. on Roberts, thereby creating him a doctor, but Damos is a professor, and a professor is somebody in this country. Played-out music teachers, corn doctors, and sleight-of-hand performers are professors, hence we cannot see why Roberts should put on airs to Damos on account of the Alabama title of L.L. D.

“The great object of having governors at all, is to supply the coming Texas University with professors, and Professor Damos, after he has got through being governor, will probably be made Chancellor of the University, provided that Roberts does not already occupy that responsible position. Judging from the kind of material we have heard spoken of his connection with the proposed University, it will be a great act of condescension if Damos accepts any position, even the highest in the institution.

“If, however, the Democratic opposition overlooks the claims Damos has on the party, we hope Damos will run independent. Unfortunately, like several other prominent Democrats, being out of his head, he has not got sense enough to pursue that course.”

The “Curse of Familiarity,” or “The Feminine Mystaque”

January 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

On January 10, the San Antonio Express News reported the rate of babies born with syphilis in Bexar County was skyrocketing. From 2005 to through 2011, Bexar County’s rates of congenital syphilis, which is transmitted from the infected mother to the baby in the womb, were five times the national average. In 2012, the rate doubled.

“We’re so far off the chart, we probably need a new chart,” said Dr. Thomas Schlenker, director of health for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Last year, the Metro Health STD Clinic received reports of 18 babies born with congenital syphilis, five of whom were stillborn.

The rise of the disease (which had nearly disappeared from the population in the 1980s) among infants corresponds to its rise among adults. Syphilis cases have reached unprecedented levels in Bexar County. San Antonio has the highest rates of syphilis of any metropolitan area in Texas.

Schlenker said there likely are many causes for the rise in syphilis. One of his biggest concerns is women who are trading sex for money or drugs and who may not have legal status here, so they are wary of seeking medical attention. He also wants to know why syphilis has been spreading among teenage girls.

In some respects it is like San Antonio has stepped back in time 100 years ago, when prostitutes sold their most intimate favors for money and the drugs (mostly morphine and cocaine) many of them were addicted to, were social outcasts (not unlike lacking legal status) and if they ever sought medical attention, it was ineffectual.

In August 1918, the Council of National Defense estimated, on a conservative basis, that more than 500,000 adult Texans had some flavor of VD. Texas’ State Health Officer was of the opinion that at least one million Texans were then infected. Keep in mind that according to the 1920 U.S. Census, Texas had 4.663 million citizens of all races, ages, and sexual preferences, which means that about half of the adults in Texas had VD, if you wish to believe worst-case estimates. There was nothing new about these staggering numbers; they had persisted for decades and thousands of babies were born blind or still-born every year, infected in the womb from syphilis or gonorrhea. While some of the mothers of these unfortunate little creatures were prostitutes who had picked up their affliction(s) from the plying of their trade, many more of them were innocent housewives infected by their loving husbands who had visited said prostitutes. Although condoms had been invented, they were seldom used.

Mercury was the most widely used “cure” for syphilis among men, leading to the popular phrase, “A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.” Newspapers from the end of the Civil War until the 1920s were filled with ads for doctors who specialized in treating venereal diseases. The sad irony was that mercury does not cure syphilis, it merely holds the outward symptoms at bay, while extracting other terrible physical tolls, like the loss of all one’s teeth.

At the same time, newspapers and magazines were filled with ads for products meant to alleviate female “nervousness” and such. Many of these aids were basically the vibrators we know and enjoy today, and the real problem they treated was sexual frustration. Female orgasms were even rarer than marital intercourse, whose frequency was usually measured by number of times per year as opposed to number of times per week. Marital intercourse was chiefly reserved for baby making. Sex was not meant to be fun for women; it was a necessary evil meant to keep the human race alive. Women were meant to be kept on a pedestal for worship from a respectful distance. Men, on the other hand, were acknowledged to have prurient interests and needs that had to be satisfied, and that is what whores were for.

Married and unmarried men alike supped at Boys’ Town rather than dine at home and soil the holiness of their wives and sweethearts, a mentality expressed by a couple of editorial items picked at random below, in this instance picked from the March 2, 1899, edition of the Schulenburg Sticker. Hundreds of thousands of similar pieces littered the newspapers and magazines of America for the better part of 100 years, until Betty Friedan began tearing down the grand myth of the woman on pedestal in 1963 with The Feminine Mystique.

“In their strife for mental equality with men, women have unintentionally broken down a fine reserve of manner which previously lent them an air of mystery, of superiority, in the best sense, than which no element is more successful in holding a man’s interest, love and respect. The young woman who greets a man friend with ‘Hello, old man!’ or its equivalent in modern slang, might in return be called ‘a peach,’ but she would be a peach with the bloom rubbed off.

“Every day I become more convinced that at the root of the increasing evidences of widespread marital unhappiness would be the familiarity that breeds contempt. When a boy climbs a tree for green apples or cherries, whichever he prefers, he constantly sees a better one higher up beyond his reach, until he nearly breaks his neck to get the one out of his stretch, partly hidden by foliage. And so man’s ideal woman hangs at the tip-top of the tree of knowledge. If the ideal drops into his hands he throws it to the ground as worthless and begins to climb again. Would it be reasonable to think, after working so hard for cherries, that he would value them long if he ate a surfeit of them. – Louisa Knapp, Ladies Home Journal.”

“The Terrell Times contains the following prediction: ‘The girl who gives away a desire to gad about the streets and cultivate the acquaintance of young men, and acting the simpering simpleton, is laying the foundation for a useless after life. Ten to one after she is married she will develop into a slatternly gossip, if no greater misfortune befalls her. It is the girl of good sound sense, the girl who loves home and helps her mother, that wins the model husband and becomes an ornament to womanhood. The girl that does this and devotes some of her time to reading, tries to win the esteem of everybody, while the gadding street ornament wins only the admiration of those whose admiration is not worth having.’”

Even Sigmund Freud wrote, “I believe that all reforming action in law and education would break down in front of the fact that, long before the age at which a man can earn a position in society, Nature has determined woman’s destiny through beauty, charm, and sweetness. Law and custom have much to give women that has been withheld from them, but the position of women will surely be what it is: in youth an adored darling and in mature years a loved wife.”

Ironically, this worship of women amounted to prayer before a false idol. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is another hoary saying that well describes all the physical misery and heartache incurred by this misguided cult of female worship.

How much more diametrically opposed can today’s “My wife is my best friend” mentality be to 1899’s “The root of marital unhappiness is the familiarity that breeds contempt. No other element is more successful in holding a man’s interest, love and respect than a woman’s fine reserve of manner, an air of mystery, of superiority.”?

Here’s some final food for thought: Divorce rates these days are staggeringly higher than they were “back in the day,” while intra-marital syphilis (and other VDs) rates are just the reverse. We have drugs that can cure VDs; what do we have to cure our 50 percent-plus divorce rate?

Only a Fool Would Say (Do) That, Part One

January 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

“A boy with a plan

A natural man

Wearing a white stetson hat.

Unhand that gun, be gone

There’s no one to fire upon.

If he’s holding it high

He’s telling a lie.

I heard it was you

Talkin’ ’bout a world

Where all is free

It just couldn’t be

And only a fool would say that.” – Steely Dan

Now that the “Empire of Dunces” (I use the word “Empire” in deference to those “honorable” [as in “For Brutus is a honorable man”] secessionists who would return us back to the vainglorious days of the Empire of Texas.) is in session again and making a joke of itself, and playing the rest of us for fools, it’s time for me (“us” for the handful of my honorable readers) to have a little fun at the lege’s expense, old school.

November 5, 1866

A number of Tonkaway Indians were on the streets this week in a salubrious condition. We suggest that they now take possession of the Capitol Square and give one of their war dances as an appropriate finale to the closed session of the Eleventh Legislature.

September 25, 1877

Mr. A. Dorris, he of the Twelfth Legislature, was in the city yesterday, and while here he “lit into” a crowd of blacks with a knife and wounded one in the arm. Dorris, it is said, had a little benzine on board and the blacks exasperated the old man by plaguing him. Immediately after he slashed into them with a knife, some one started after an officer to have him arrested, but Dorris got into his wagon and left the city post haste.

June 1882

The Angry Gazette.

The following is what the New York Police Gazette has to say of the Texas legislature: “The small potato legislators of Texas have put a tax of $500 on the vendors of the Police Gazette. If we wished, we could buy out the moral faction of the state, but we would hold them dear at any price, and don’t propose to either purchase them or be blackmailed by the canting crew of political deacons. Such yellow curs may as bay the moon as snarl at us. Both curs and the Gazette will roll on in spite of their howls.”

February 24, 1883

No Extra Charge.

A very loudly dressed female, very much painted up, of the class that is always very numerous in Austin when the Legislature is in session, put in her appearance at the photographic arena of a local artist. She was accompanied by a young puppy, a genuine one, however, with four legs. She stated she wanted a picture of the dog and was told it would cost $2.

How much will you charge extra, if I can take in the picture?” she asked.

There will be no extra charge whatever, I don’t charge any more for one dog than I do for the both of you.”

April 15, 1883

Friday morning, the mayor, for the first time in four or five years, had no cases of any kind before him. By the way, the legislature adjourned Friday morning.

May 29, 1883

It is definitely known to the Evening News that indictments have been returned against many members of the legislature for poker playing. We do not believe these gentlemen are guilty of any violation of the spirit of the law against gaming, and we will have some plain talk on this subject soon.

January 9, 1884

At legislator’s headquarters today at 12, chili con carne.

The pressure on the gas tank needs screwing down, or something to make lights stronger. If the works are inadequate to the demand, attach a pipe to the legislature. [Editor’s note: Austin was then lighted by coal gas, which was known and derided for putting out but little light.]

(More legislative fun to come … )

I Say Me for a Parabola

January 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

I Say Me for a Parable is the title of Mance Lipscomb’s autobiography; Mance Lipscomb, of course, being the great Texas bluesman from Navasota.

In mathematics, a parabola (which shares the same Greek root, parabellein, as parable) is a “conic section.” For all of us non-mathematicians, the easiest way to understand a parabola is to apply it to the human head, which is most recognizable in the “Coneheads” of Saturday Night Live fame, and the “Pinheads” of Freaks (the movie) and Zippy the Pinhead (the comic strip) fame.

As usual, the freshly minted (freshly demented, if you prefer) Texas legislature has already put me into parabolic paroxysms with their various agendas (Their collective parabola, my resultant paroxysms).

All of which leads me to the telling of a parable. Now, I’m no Jesus, as anyone who knows me will attest, and this is my first attempt at parabling, but hopefully I will be able to get my parabolic point across in the following ramble.

I own a couple of houses in the picturesque but dying little town of Sanderson, at the edge of the fabled Big Bend of West Texas. Sanderson began its downward spiral in 1995 when the Southern Pacific Railroad pulled up stakes and left town. Its population has since dwindled from nearly 3000 to about 900. And among the handful of things the SP left behind, besides of dozens of vacated employee houses and memories, was the original 1883 depot, a sprawling building that was considered one of the top ten historic depots in the United States. “Was” is the operative word; the Union Pacific Railroad (which subsumed the Southern Pacific some years ago) demolished the depot, with the complicity of all but a few Sandersonians, in October 2012, citing the dangers caused by its deteriorating condition.

At a time when dozens of railroad towns across Texas are celebrating their rail heritage by restoring their much humbler depots and promoting railroad tourism, Sanderson simply said, “Cram it with nuts” to its rich railroad heritage, beginning with its depot. More visionary people in Marfa (some of them ex-Sandersonians) looked into moving the depot there, but the difficulties of getting it through Alpine proved to be a show-stopper.

At one point, a decade ago, Sanderson had a half-million dollar state grant in hand to restore the depot. But the newly elected county judge (Sanderson is unincorporated, meaning that it is run by Terrell County authorities) rejected the grant, basically saying that there were too many strings attached and citing the potential future costs the county might incur, despite the county’s budget surplus of about $1 million (Is this beginning to sound familiar?)

More than a dozen significant railroad buildings dating from the late 1880s, such as the old crew bunkhouse, remain scattered across Sanderson but are rotting away like the depot did, because no one gives a damn about them (Except for me and perhaps one or two more folks; I have lovingly preserved an old railroad section house from the early 1890s that I bought for about $4000 in 1999).

Sanderson is also one of the best spots for train watching in Texas. Being located in a twisting canyon, viewers from atop the canyon walls can see a variety of freight and passenger trains winding their way for miles through the canyon in either direction, and hear the train whistles echo up to seven times off the canyon walls. Yet, does Sanderson do anything to promote its rich railroad tourism possibilities? Nada. Zip (as in pinhead). It has preferred to wallow in willful, isolated mediocrity, with a handful of mostly minimum wage jobs, substandard healthcare, and a history of high teenage pregnancy rates (kids have little else to do than slip into the hills and drink and fornicate) rather than spend a few dollars to turn it back into a thriving, showcase town with employment opportunities that extend beyond working for shitty pay and few benefits at the town’s one 24-hour truck stop.

Except for a short-lived residency by a small, custom silver jewelry manufacturing shop, Sanderson has pulled in not a single new industrial concern or other meaningfully sized outside business since the SP pulled out.

Other than for some nearby sheep and angora ranching, Sanderson was always a railroad town, a place where train crews switched, meaning that many railroad employees lived in Sanderson, all of whom pulled pretty handsome wages, among them the engineers.

The other Sanderson property I own is an extremely humble, undersized, stucco-over wood frame house on the edge of town that everyone calls the Hank House, after its final owner/occupant, whose last name will go unmentioned to protect the eccentric. In a town and region filled with eccentrics, Hank stood head and shoulders above the rest. An SP engineer, Hank was textbook obsessive/compulsive, which manifested itself in hoarding and world-class stinginess. Hank stories are as numerous as fleas on a yaller dog in Sanderson. He never met a plastic shopping bag he didn’t like, and he had a similar fondness for empty match covers, especially ones with locomotives on them. Not that he particularly cared for locomotives; everyone in town says that he drove the hell out of his engines, with none of the loving care that engineers are legendary for.

He evidently did his shopping, save for breakfast, lunch and dinner, at the county dump. He owned two cars; a 1974 Honda Civic that he had painted by brush with bright orange house paint, and a 1963 Volkswagen, which seems to have been his primary mechanized form of transportation. To save on gas, he drove the occasional 60 hilly, twisting miles to Fort Stockton at 30 miles per hour. Whenever he drove to the post office to get his mail, he rolled to a stop by bumping into the metal-pipe parking-lot guard rail, to save wear and tear on the brakes. He washed his clothes with rainwater he collected from roof runoff in 55-gallon oil drums and dried those wet clothes, Mexican style, atop a pile of limestone rocks in the back yard.

One day he tripped and fell on his face, resulting in several bloody scrapes. In a manner reminiscent of Mickey Rourke’s character in the movie, Barfly, Hank went about town several days with the dried blood decorating his face like warpaint. “Hank, why don’t you wash that blood off your face?” people asked. Hank replied that he didn’t want to waste the water.

His one extravagance was a TV satellite dish, not for himself, but for his common-law wife, Connie, who in a rich twist of fate, owned my other property, the railroad house. Hank, evidently, was of the “Why buy a cow when you can buy milk by the gallon” school. Their relationship was evidently a tumultuous one; at the time of his death in 1994, they had been separated for some period of time, although she remained named as his beneficiary on his railroad life insurance policy. That fact was sufficient ammunition for her survivors to battle Hank’s niece and nephew for his estate.

Hank did not die a poor man. Among other assets, he had almost $200,000 in un-cashed pay and retirement checks squirreled away in the little house. Dozens of his neighbors have told me of the buried treasure that they are sure he had buried in the back yard and that I really should buy or borrow a metal detector and find it.

Given the usually low relative humidity in Sanderson and the rest of West Texas, air conditioners really aren’t necessary; “swamp coolers” work very nicely on all but the most rainy of days and cost but a couple of pennies an hour to operate. They use about as much electricity as a small electric fan and about as much water as you might drink on a summer day. Hank didn’t have an air conditioner or any fans, but he had a swamp cooler; I still use it. But for Hank, a penny saved was a penny earned.

Hank died one day in early June 1994, probably of heatstroke, although no one knows the date or cause of his death for sure. He was barely of retirement age and had no known health problems. The first 10 days that June had been extraordinarily hot; 100 degrees-plus every day. After townfolk hadn’t seen Hank for a week or so (he walked everywhere most of the time), it occurred to someone to check in on him. What they found was little more than a greasy puddle on the floor of the closed up little house. The swamp cooler was in the turned off position. Despite the heat, Hank had been too cheap to turn on the swamp cooler. Connie’s family claimed what was left of his body and buried it in the Mexican section of the local cemetery, not far from the graves of the last train robbers in Texas, who had tried and died just east of town. Hank and Connie were ultimately reunited in death, and thus they lie side by side for eternity.

Hank was rich by anyone but the “one percent’s” standards, but he died trying to save a lousy handful of pennies. Was he saving for that proverbial “rainy day”? Call it whatever you want. Dead is dead.

Texas’ Rainy Day Fund is back to well over $8 billion, and sales tax revenues are up 10 percent from the same time last year (an estimated $2.17 billion for December 2012). The taxable value of oil produced in Texas surged to $39.1 billion in 2011 from $18.4 billion in 2009 and is still on the rise. Yet in the face of this robust economic rebound, our esteemed governor and a majority of our all-wise (guy) legislators are calling for continued budget cuts in the face of continued public education devastation, the highest number of people without health insurance in the nation, a crumbling public infrastructure, crippling drought, ad nauseam. And calling for tax cuts (mostly for businesses) as well, even though Texans are already relatively lightly taxed compared with the citizens of many other states, and despite the regressive nature of the sales and property taxes that favor the rich and penalize the poor (If the period of time since the last time Texas’ pump gas tax was raised were a living person, he/she could legally drink a beer.).

The governor and most of the lege recite a litany of reasons to justify their budgetary decisions in the face of brutal reality. I’m sure Hank had his litany of reasons for the decisions he made. I wish I could have been around to listen to them. Unfortunately for him and for me, Hank died, at least in the corporeal sense, in the process of justifying them. But I do take heart in the knowledge that a bit of Hank lives on, at least in spirit and in new digs, imbuing our state’s leaders with his peculiar wisdom.

A Rockin’ Christmas, Old School

January 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

Although no one much knows or cares these days, outside of the Hispanic community (Que viven los Tres Magos!), the 12 Days of Christmas end today. A century and more ago, when the Christmas season actually started with Christmas, the 12 days that followed were among the liveliest of the year in Austin, as duly noted below:

January 6, 1854

Our Christmas holidays passed off quietly. Christmas day was duly celebrated by a portion of our church going people. It was ushered in by the boys with the usual amount of fire crackers, shooting and squalling. Those fond of sporting enjoyed the races that came off during the week. There was the usual quantity of “red eye” disposed of, and we are told several night fights came off by way of variety, but that nothing serious occurred. None, however, seemed so elated at the return of this annual holiday, as our “darkies.” – Could one of our Northern philanthropists have seen Sambo and Dinah perambulating our streets, dressed in their “Sunday go to meeting Christmas clothes,” he would have been perfectly astonished at the miserable condition of the Southern slave.

January 6, 1855

CHRISTMAS FIGHTS. – The Christmas fights began with too much vim, they couldn’t hold out – Little Windy got up a scrimmage between Quincy and the “loud talking man” – “Loud Talk” didn’t win – he was turned from the bottom, like a “jack” in “old sledge.” He coaxed somebody else into a nice little fight, and got “knifed” for his pains. There were various other pugilistic exhibitions – by all sorts of people – in all sorts of conditions.  Friends were generally on hand to separate them, which increased their wrath – “distance lends enchantment to the view.” We would give the names of the parties, but they have, most of them, assured us of their undying devotion to us and ours – winding up by saying “that little affair was funny, but of course you never mention such things.” Well we don’t. Go on boys – amuse yourselves, it draws no blood from our rock-broken nose.

Justice Never Sleeps (And Neither Does Commerce)

January 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

I can’t start the New Year of 2013 without saying something, although it isn’t much. Today Diana and I were driving up to Threadgill’s to tend to a dead car, and we passed Capital Plaza; Target’s end of the parking lot was packed like a sardine can. She marveled at all the stores that were open today. Even the Sonic on Slaughter Lane was doing just shy of a land office business. Quite a change from 40 years ago, when you were lucky to find a gas station open and HEB was closed for the day, and Sundays too, for that matter. But who among us is complaining? No one that I can think of.

Despite the spirit of Puritanism that gripped us in 1973, New Year’s Day 1883 was rocking and rolling, at least when it came to the toss of the dice, as the Statesman reported the next morning:

Several of the “bloods” were out in plug hats for the first time last evening. Those young men will find that to wear those hats until they become used to them will be worth at least $400,000 to their harrowed feelings, on account of facetious remarks and humorous slaps on the head, etc.

County court transacted the usual routine business. The following were all up for gambling and fined in the sums following their names: Bailey Sparks, $25 and costs; John Brown, $25 and costs; Jack Franklin, George Rose, Tony Wallace, Ben Brown, Dave Lynch, Jim Pigran, Sam Slaughter, “Squire” Robards, George and “Squire” Blanton, Roger Blunt, “Mingo” and Bob Nichols, all were fined $10 and costs, each. Sixteen gamblers in a day, paying fines aggregating $190 exclusive of cost, is a very good beginning for New Year’s day. The mayor’s and justices’ courts all took holiday yesterday, it being New Year’s day.

For some reason, Joan Didion’s collection of essays, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” has been on my mind these last few weeks; really since the November elections. The title comes from the last line of William Butler Yeats’ poem,


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

My gut feeling is that I will be spending this newly born year “Slouching through Babylon.”

Happy New Year, y’all.

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