(November 28, 1997)
Did you know that:
The just-published 1998-1999 Texas Almanac has enough potential cocktail party chit-chat to carry even the most ardent trivia fan well into the next century. But by that time, another Almanac will be out.
The 672-page Almanac, which sells for $12.95, is the best information bargain in Texas, next to a 50-cent daily newspaper.
This is the 59th edition of this venerable publication, which traces its origin to ante-bellum times in Texas.
As always, the new Almanac is a mixture of new articles on assorted subjects -- from Texas wildflowers to a look at the archaeological effort that resulted in the discovery of the La Belle, French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's ship.
The Almanac always has been the best single source of statistical information on Texas, but this new edition offers some new and useful standard categories. Obituaries of well-known Texans who died before press time are included as is a section on how to pronounce assorted Texas place-names. (The town of Mexia is pronounced muh HA uh, not Mex - E - Uh.)
A brief history of Texas has been returned to the Almanac as well as the text of the Texas Declaration of Independence.
Another new feature, of particular appeal to we Baby Boomers: The page size of the Almanac has been increased by about an inch in each direction, which allows for a larger type size. The result is a book that is not only interesting to read, but easier to read.
(November 21, 1997)
"Read with a Child!"
That's the slogan on a poster produced by the American Association of Booksellers for Children. Daughter Hallie came home with that, and an autographed children's book, one recent Saturday afternoon.
"The Most Important Twenty Minutes of Your Day," the poster also affirms.
The only thing wrong with that observation is its incompleteness. Not only is reading with a child arguably the most important 20 minutes a day an adult can spend, it can be the best 20 minutes of the day.
I'm sure most parents share this sentiment, but it is particularly true for those whose career centers on words and their ordering and distribution. To watch as a child begins to figure out that words can be written and read as well as spoken and heard is to see a miracle unfolding that is only slightly less impressive than birth. In a way, it is a birth -- the beginning of someone's ability to understand the world.
The book Hallie brought home was "Little Red Cowboy Hat" by Susan Lowell and illustrated by Randy Cecil. (Henry Holt and Co., $14.95.) Cecil had signed the book for her at Toad Hall, a local children's book store.
At the store, she'd sat astride a pony brought in as part of the autograph party. Back home, she climbed up in my lap with the book in her small hands. She leaned her head against my chest and asked me to read it to her. I covered her feet with a blanket and started with the title page. That's because I want her to begin associating those words, as well as the name of the author, with the content of the book.
As I moved into the text, I quickly realized that Lowell owes a great debt to "Little Red Riding Hood." Her new book, in Hollywood terms, is a spinoff. It is "Little Red Riding Hood" goes West.
"Does he bite?" Hallie wanted to know when the wolf in Western attire first appeared.
"That's what those teeth are for," I explained.
"Is he a monster?"
"No, he's just a wolf. But I bet he has a monstrous appetite."
That, of course, went high over Hallie's head, but I found it moderately amusing. There's no rule forbidding parents from having a little fun with an occasional insider joke when they read to their kids. At least not one that I observe.
After I'd finished with a dramatic reading of the book, Hallie "read" it to me. She went back to the title page and pretended she was reading the name of the author and illustrator. Then she paged through the rest of it, studying each drawing and telling me what she saw.
When she finished the book, complete with a very satisfied sounding "The end!," she took the poster and unfolded it. After studying it intently for a few moments she swept it away to her room.
Wow. She's really getting close to reading, I thought. My paternal warm and fuzzy factor bubbled over. But this is a children's story with a not quite storybook ending.
When Hallie did not soon reappear, I got up to check what she was up to. Silence is not always golden when it comes to pre-schoolers.
On the wall over her bed, attached with what looked like about 19 long pieces of tape, was her new "Read with a Child!" poster.
It was upside down. But, hey, she's not even four yet.
(November 14, 1997)
Ever hear of the Pecos River Queen?
Her name, according to an anonymous poem that commemorates her, was "fair young" Patti Moorehead. She never married, and the poem sort of explains why.
But first some background.
In 1892, about a decade after the Texas and Pacific Railroad built its tracks through West Texas, the railroad considerably shortened the route by building a huge bridge across the Pecos. That river -- Texas' westernmost if you don't count the Rio Grande -- winds like a rattlesnake across West Texas.
An engineering marvel, the Pecos River bridge was 2,180 feet long and towered 321 feet above the river. For years, the metal span was the highest bridge in the United States and the third highest in the world. Postcards of the bridge were a favorite medium for the classic "Having a good time, wish you were here" message.
Gutsy cowboys, confident they had a good horse and emboldened by whiskey, occasionally rode across the walkway that adjoined the tracks on the bridge. There were no guardrails.
Naturally, any cowpoke who could walk his horse across the bridge earned himself quite a reputation. Such a fellow would be a suitable partner for the Pecos River Queen.
Patti was as handy with a rope and horse as she was pretty.
The last two verses of the poem tell the rest of the story:
Across the Comstock railroad bridge
the highest in the west
Patti rode her horse one day
her lover's heart to test.
For he told her he would
brave all dangers for her sake,
but the puncher would not follow
so she is still without a mate.
The old bridge is gone, replaced by a more modern span, but the poem about Patti endures.
The full text of it is in Jerry Flemmons' new book, "More Texas Siftings: Another Bold and Uncommon Celebration of the Lone Star State." Published by the TCU Press (154 pages).
"More Texas Siftings" is a sequel to "Texas Siftings," published in 1995. The title was inspired by Alex Sweet's 1881 book "Texas Siftings," a collection of humorous stories about Texas.
The new books compiled by Flemmons are literally the result of sifting, being collections of anecdotes and quotations culled from Texas-related books, newspaper stories, letters, and other sources.
Veteran Texans will be familiar with some of the items in the book, but even old jokes are funny to someone exposed to them for the first time. The following bit about Lubbock -- though as easily applicable to Amarillo and almost anyplace else in Texas -- is an example:
"Stranger to Lubbock rancher:
'Does the wind blow this way all the time?'
'Nope. Sometimes it blows the other way.'"
These two books are tall grazing for anyone who likes a good story with a Texas connection. And for those who'd rather eat hardy than browse, there also are a few vintage recipes in the book.
Looking ahead to the holidays, Flemmons' two "Sifting" books would make great gifts.
* * *
Retired Congressman Jake Pickle called the other day with a question I haven't been able to answer yet. He said he used to read his family a story -- either by O. Henry or J. Frank Dobie -- about an elderly couple trying to get their wagon across a rain-swollen stream.
Just when they are about to give up, a friendly stranger rides up and succeeds in getting them across. The couple eventually discover that the helpful stranger is their son, long gone away from home.
The twist ending sounds O. Henry-ish, but I've checked with a couple of O. Henry experts who don't recognize it.
If anyone knows the author and title of this story, let me know, and I'll get a copy to Pickle in time for him to read it to his family again at Christmas.
(November 7, 1997)
Chapter 2 of the Texas Book Festival has been written, but work soon will begin on Chapter 3 -- set for Nov. 13-15 next year.
A collection of "excerpts" from Chapter 2, which had a two-day shelf life last weekend at the Capitol:
-- The Great Comanche Raid: "How's your mother?" I asked Sam Waring, who was selling rare books for Congress Avenue Booksellers in the exhibitor's tent and whose mother runs the public library in Comanche, a big-city quality operation in a small town.
"Right now she's kinda down," he said.
I immediately thought the worst. The way her son talked made me fearful that my friend Margaret Waring had developed some serious health problem.
"The county zeroed out her book acquisition budget for next year," he said, seeing the concern on my face.
I was relieved to hear Margaret was still in good health, but knowing her, I understand how not having any public money to buy books for her library patrons would have her a bit less upbeat than normal.
Margaret's dilemma is a perfect example of the importance of the Book Festival, which is about raising money for Texas libraries. Last year, 40 public libraries in the state were awarded $127,000 in grants from money raised by the festival. Hearing of Margaret's bad news at the festival was at least fitting. Maybe her library will qualify for a grant from money raised this year.
-- More than 100 invited Texas authors, from Larry McMurtry (latest book: "Comanche Moon") to a first-time novelist, Kyle Jarrard from Paris (France, not East Texas), who wrote a book about a Texan in Paris ("Over There"), gathered to talk about writing, read from their work and autograph their books at the festival. Hundreds of other Texas-related titles also were for sale in big tents set up just west of the Capitol.
-- Most of the people who stood in line in the signing tent did so because they wanted a personally-inscribed copy of an author's work. But not everyone. Sunday afternoon, one young woman approached the authors with a dollar bill in hand. "Would you mind signing this?" she asked. One dollar is 6 to 24 shy of what most of the books were going for, but she at least was getting some autographs.
-- Many of the books signed by Kinky Friedman, whose latest mystery ("Road Kill") is just out, were grayed slightly by an occasional flake of cigar ash.
And assorted bests of the fest:
-- Best not totally-printable Kinky line: "I have to [go to the bathroom.] Can I [go to the bathroom] in the Governor's Mansion?" Yes, the Mansion has a bathroom and it is downstairs and open to visitors.
-- Best rejoinder to the Kinkster: Writer Gary Lavergne ("A Sniper in the Tower") who came to this country from Louisiana eight years ago: "As the Cajuns say, 'Go pass a good time.'"
-- Best politically correct joke: From Austin novelist Carol Dawson, discussing the Saturday morning author's photo session in the Capitol rotunda. Dawson, boiling down a shaggy dog story, told of a spectacular one-shot-only flood scene filmed under the direction of the legendary Cecil B. De Mille. Four cameras were positioned to get the shot. Though no retake would be possible, the first three cameramen each missed the shot for one reason or another. Then De Mille yelled at the most distant photographer to ask if he'd gotten the shot. "Ready when you are, Mr. De Mille," he replied.
-- Best kept secret in the Capitol: The sound system in the House gallery made those standing at the front of the chamber sound like they were talking Farsi. A secret weapon to cloak the processes of state government? At first I wondered if maybe it was just me and my middle-aged Clintonesque hearing, but others of varying ages also missed much of the opening talk by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Lonesome Dove" and his friend Diana Ossana.
-- Best bookselling technique: Historian-writer John Morris, author of a new book on the high plains of Texas and New Mexico ("El Llano Estacado") did a card on his computer that read: "Sex, The Dallas Cowboys, And." He placed that card in the display copy of his book, making the title appear to be "Sex, The Dallas Cowboys, And El Llano Estacado."
-- Best freebie: Austin writer-publisher Ray Bard, who last year brought out a book on Southwest Airline's colorful Herb Keller was offering free peanuts to the hundreds of weekend book browsers. You didn't even have to buy one of his books to get the nuts, which with an uppercase N is the title of the Keller book.
-- Best reason for missing some of the events: Writer Preston Lewis of Lubbock, current president of the Western Writers of America, was on hand for the opening events Saturday, but then had to leave for Waco. Waco? Lewis and wife Harriet went to Baylor and this was their 25th reunion. They attended the 23-21 Baylor upset of UT, signed the toppled goalpost along with hundreds of other alums, and then returned to Austin so Lewis could put his signature on copies of his latest book on Sunday.
Footnote: The Lewis have two children. One goes to Baylor. One goes to UT.