(June 27, 1997)
Those who saw the television mini-series "Roots" back in the mid-1970s, or did the old-fashioned thing and actually read Alex Haley's novel, certainly came away with a sense of what slavery must have been like.
But what was it really like? What was it like to get up at 4 a.m. every day to the ringing of a bell and know you were going to spend all day picking cotton and that if you didn't work hard enough or tried to run away, you could get tied to a post and lashed with a bull whip? What was is like to be doled out a skimpy amount of basic foodstuffs for a whole week, and what was it like to be told you had to live with a certain person so that your children would grow up big and strong and make better slaves?
Nearly a century and a half removed from that brutal institution, all we can do is read about it and try to comprehend. An excellent place to start is "Till Freedom Cried Out: Memories of Texas Slave Life," edited by T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker with illustrations by Kermit Oliver. Published by Texas A&M University Press, the 162-page book sells for $29.95 in hardback.
The book is a collection of narratives of 32 men and women who once had been slaves. They were based on interviews done in 1937 by writers working for the federal Works Progress Administration, a government employment project that may have been the best thing to come out of the so-called Great Depression.
The interviews gathered in this book were done in Oklahoma, but all of the former slaves either had been born in Texas or had some connection to Texas.
It's easy to think of slavery being something that happened in the Deep South, where Cotton was King. But the crop also reigned in East Texas, and so did slavery. Being chattel was no easier in Texas than anywhere else, as these interviews show.
The title of the book comes from the first paragraph of the first narrative in the collection, the recollections of L.B. Barner: "I's born in Palestine Texas. I don't know how old I is. I was 9 years old when freedom cried out."
By that, he meant when blacks in Texas finally learned that they were free, which did not happened until June 19, 1865 -- nearly two years after President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Since this book is only a collection of narratives, there is no novel-like structure, but the stories are as interesting -- and horrifying -- as anything in "Roots." The narratives are rich in folklore, from treasure stories to voodoo, and in details of the everyday life of a slave.
Though the interviews collected in Oklahoma and elsewhere long have been available to scholars, this is the first time the Texas narratives have been published as a separate collection. The Bakers did a fine job in editing the volume, putting the narratives in perspective with a solid introduction and providing notes for each entry.
As Baker said in the last paragraph of his introduction, "Those who read these pages should come and bring their buckets to the well and drink deep of the memories."
Two other recently-published books deal with the history of blacks in Texas, "Brave Black Women: From Slavery to the Space Shuttle," a children's book by Ruthe Winegarten and Sharon Kahn (University of Texas Press, $12.95 in paper) and "Bricks Without Straw: A Comprehensive History of African-Americans in Texas," written and edited by David A. Williams (Eakin Press, $29.95, hardback.)
(June 20, 1997)
It's a good thing for America that a young sailor from East Texas named Francis Abernethy didn't have but one monumentally bad day during his World War II service aboard the U.S.S. Harkness.
If he had, we might not have won the war.
To boil it down, in a single day of service to his country, Abernethy:
Somehow, he lived through it without being keel-hauled.
Abernethy recalls how he helped to win the big war in an interesting and well-written book published by Eakin Press, "Collective Heart: Texans in World War II." Edited by Joyce Gibson Roach, the 222-page softcover book sells for $15.95.
"Collective Heart" is a collection of 10 essays dealing with the experiences of their Texas authors during the world war and nine pieces of short fiction, also dealing with the war.
Even the fiction, which is written by people who were alive during the war, has a ring of authenticity to it. But the strongest part of the book is the non-fiction.
After reading Abernethy's essay, "At Home on the Harkness," and then one by San Angelo Western writer Elmer Kelton, "The Best Christmas," I was thoroughly hooked into the book. I ended up saving the best read for last, even though it is the first essay in the book, "Night of the Yaqui Moon." I just didn't know how good it would be until I delved into it.
The essay, by Jane Pattie, is based on a story former Texas Ranger Rufus Van Zandt told.
Van Zandt spent a lot of time hunting bears and big cats in Mexico and became friends with the fierce Yaqui Indians, a tribe the Mexican government had tried its best to exterminate.
When the war began, the U.S. government asked Van Zandt to keep his eyes and ears open for Japanese or German activity south of the border. He did, and found a considerable Japanese presence on the west coast of Mexico.
Eventually, according to Van Zandt, he participated in a raid by Yaqui Indians on a clandestine Japanese submarine refueling point on the Pacific side of Baja California. He said a submarine and two trawlers were sunk and a fair amount of Japanese were killed. A short time later, Mexico declared war against the Axis powers. The inference is that Mexico had been playing footsy with Japan and Germany prior to the time of the raid, but that, fearing an American invasion, it decided to throw in the with the Allies.
Whether all this is true or just another war story is open to further scholarship, but it makes a heck of a read.
Eakin Press, just in time for the end of the millennium, has reissued "The Book of Texas Days" by Ron Stone. First published in 1984, the book is a year-by-year listing of significant or singular events in Texas history. The 250-page large format book sells for $27.95.
Unfortunately, the new edition is only a reprint, with no new material added to the timeline at the end of the book. That compendium, a useful reference source, still ends at 1983.
Still, "The Book of Texas Days" is a handy reference and fun to browse through.
I don't have many books left over from my childhood, and the one's I do have are not in all that good condition. But, hey, I was a kid back then. I didn't know any better. If you or your child has a "sick" book, take it by the Children's Book Hospital at the ninth annual Austin Book Arts Fair this weekend for a free repair.
The fair, sponsored by the Austin Book Workers -- a group of people involved in the book arts, from printing to binding to restoring -- will be from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th St. All the events and demonstrations are free.
(June 13, 1997)
It's time I got this off my chest: I may be partially responsible for the shortage of horned toads in Texas.
But, hey, I was a juvenile at the time. I didn't know any better. And besides, all the kids did it.
What did we do? Well, suffice it to say that horned toads scampering across the ground made great running targets for our BB guns. Other things were done to horned toads -- not necessarily by me -- that are best left unwritten in a family newspaper. Life was tough for the little creatures back then.
I feel bad about it today, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s, horned toads were everywhere, practically as ubiquitous as fire ants are today.
Speaking of fire ants, they and the pesticide used over the years to try to kill them, are considered the prime suspects in the virtual disappearance of the horned toad from all but far West Texas. Since fire ants are not found in that part of the state, that's more circumstantial evidence to help assuage my guilty conscience.
What got me thinking about my early life of horned toad crime was Jane Manaster's interesting and readable new book on the scary looking but sort of lovable horned toad, which for the purposes of academic publishing is referred to as a horned lizard. Published by the University of Texas Press, the 81-page book, Horned Lizards, sells for $17.95.
This book is part of a series UT Press is doing on natural history. Manaster wrote a book on the pecan tree for this same series a year or so ago.
We kids, as did most other Texans of my acquaintance, referred to these reptiles as horny toads. They also have been called horntoads, horned frogs or simply toads. In Mexico, they are known as camaleons (chameleon) or torito de la Virgen (Virgin's little bull.)
No matter what we call them -- horned lizards seem a little too formal for me -- horned toads have an interesting folklore and Manaster devotes a chapter to some of the legends involving these animals.
The prime story, of course, is the tale of Old Rip, a horned toad which supposedly survived 31 years entombed in the corner stone of the old Eastland County courthouse. The courthouse was built in 1897, and when the cornerstone was laid, someone captured a horned toad and thought it would be clever to put it inside along with various other artifacts of the time.
When the old courthouse was razed to make room for a modern structure, the horned toad supposedly revived shortly after being removed. Old Rip, named in honor of Rip Van Winkle, became a national celebrity. Of course, the money has to be on his lengthy hibernation and miraculous recovery merely being a publicity stunt.
My grandfather, the late L.A. Wilke, worked for a Fort Worth newspaper at the time, and later assured me it was an inside job with Chamber of Commerce implications. But the story still will get you in an argument in Eastland County, where there are many loyal believers. No matter what, it's a good story. And horned toads are known to live up to 15 years, so maybe it's a half-true story!
In addition to horned toad folklore, Manaster covers its habitat and geographic range, behavior, defense system, its importance as a symbol for American Indians, its connection to Mexican history, its modern history, extended range and conservation efforts. The book is enhanced by 11 color photographs, many of them by the talented wildlife photographer Wyman Meinzer, and 10 black and white illustrations.
A bigger book could have been written about this little creature, but Manaster has done a good job of condensing the story into a slim volume. Not only that, after reading what fire ants and urbanization have done to the Texas horned toad population, I don't feel nearly as guilty as I used to.
(June 6, 1997)
If your job hinges on being available all the time -- even after most other folks are home with their feet propped up -- let me recommend Caprock Canyons State Park.
After backpacking a mile-and-a-half up a canyon to a primitive campsite in the park, I checked my cellular phone. Its display showed good news: "No svc." And the little icon on my beeper warned me that I was no longer in electronic contact with the outside world. Please, throw me in the briar patch said the rabbit.
For once, it was just me and the mountain lions, mule deer, coyotes and jackrabbits. After a pre-cooked meal heated on a portable stove (sorry, no campfires . . . the wood's too scarce and the danger from fires ever present), I crawled into my umbrella tent and slept like a baby on my new, lightweight self-inflating bedroll pad. No one called to tell me bad news. No one called to ask me something. No one called because they couldn't.
Only the mosquitos distracted from the quality of the night, but they were no problem once I zipped up my tent. They could buzz all they wanted as long as they didn't bite.
Sure, a shave and a hot shower felt great after a couple of days in a place so far off the beaten path that I found only one discarded soft drink can in the camping area, but after looking through Laurence Parent's newly released "Official Guide to Texas State Parks," I'm ready to go again. If not to the 15,161-acre Caprock Canyons State Park near Quitaque (a Comanche word, pronounced Kitty-quay) in Briscoe County, then somewhere else -- as long as it's out of pager and cellphone range.
Co-published by the University of Texas Press and Texas Parks and Wildlife Press, the 232-page guide sells for $19.95 in paperback. It features 253 color photographs and 130 maps. Arranged by geographic area, each entry contains a description of the park, photographs, a locator map and visitor information.
The first thing I discovered in going over this attractive new book is that Texas has more state parks than I thought: If you're planning a summer vacation, you have 125 choices.
The public real estate in Texas ranges from the Franklin Mountains in El Paso to the Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park below Port Arthur, from the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park south of Mission to the Samuel Bell Maxey House State Historical Park in Paris.
Not only are there more state parks than I thought, there are a few fairly new acquisitions I'd never even heard of: Chinati Mountains State Park southwest of Marfa, Devils River Site Natural Area and the Bright Leaf State Park on Lake Austin.
Texas has big state parks and small state parks. The biggest is the 269,714-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park. The smallest is Acton State Historical Park, covering 12 by 21 feet or 0.006 acres. Near Granbury in Hood County, the park features a stone shaft supporting a marble statue of a pioneer woman. The monument honors the widow of Alamo defender Davy Crockett, Elizabeth Patton Crockett. She came to Texas in 1854 and settled on land awarded her by the state for her late husband's service to Texas, dying there in 1862. Elizabeth, her son and his wife are buried near the monument, which was put up by the state in 1911.
"Official Guide to Texas State Parks" is a well-done, attractive book. If it just listed whether a particular park had cellular service. . . .