(September 26, 1997)
It happened one October at Seminole Canyon State Park.
I was there to see the ancient pictographs on the rocks. The mysterious drawings were fascinating, but the Monarchs stole the show.
While walking an interpretive trail in the park, I came to a blizzard of swirling color. They were the black-and-yellow Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus to butterfly experts), attracted for some reason to this particular spot on their annual journey southward to winter in Mexico.
There must have been hundreds of thousands of them. More than I had ever seen in one place before or since.
It was the Twilight Zone on LSD, one of the more singular experiences I've ever had. Most of the time, you see only one or two butterflies at a time. To see the whole sky filled with them is almost incredible.
According to "A Field Guide to Butterflies of Texas," the Monarchs are the "most readily recognized butterfly in North America." Each year, they travel from Canada to Central America, via Texas.
This 324-page book by Raymond W. Neck, published by Gulf Publishing in softcover at $21.95, will appeal to lepidopterists (a species of human who studies butterflies) or anyone interested in these flying insects.
Texas has more than 440 species of butterflies, from Parides eurimedes (Cattle Heart) to Megathymus urus (Ursine Giant Skippers.) In between are creatures whose names are as interesting as their description. There are Painted Ladies, Elfs, Variegated Fritillaries, Pearly Eyes, Gemmed Satyrs and Confused Pellicia.
But anyone who reads this book will never be confused about butterflies again, though you may need to refer to the glossary, which explains what words like "cucurbitacin" and "ecdysis" mean. Neck covers everything from the difference between butterflies and moths to the sex life of butterflies.
Though butterflies can mate and fly at the same time, there are not as many of them as there used to be, Neck says. This is not for lack of enthusiasm on their part, but because of habitat loss associated with urban growth.
If you like to watch butterflies, butterfly gardening might be for you. Neck has a how-to section on this activity, which involves growing plants butterflies find attractive.
Nearly a quarter of Texas butterfly varieties are found in Houston and Southeast Texas, which is the focus of "Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas" by John and Gloria Tveten. Published by the University of Texas Press, the 292-page book sells for $45 in hardcover, $19.95 in paper.
Neck's book is a better overview, but for anyone interested in the butterflies of Southeast Texas, the two books go well together.
(September 19, 1997)
Okay. Take out one sheet of paper and a pencil. This is a pop quiz.
1. The Rough Riders were commanded by Theodore Roosevelt.
True or false?
2. The Rough Riders were recruited in San Antonio?
True or false?
3. The Rough Riders rode into lasting fame when they charged San Juan Hill?
True or false?
If you believe the answer to all three of those questions is true, you need to read an impressive and interesting new book from Texas A&M University Press, "Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan: The Making of a President." Written by a husband-wife writing team, Peggy and Harold Samuels, the 374-page book sells for $39.95 in hardback.
This book is a good example of what some are beginning to realize may be the future of academic publishing: A scholarly effort written for the general public, not another academician.
A 17-page, small-type bibliography is testament to the research that went into the book. But the authors wrote it in an almost novelistic style, which is the way all non-fiction should be written if a publisher wants to sell books.
Now, ready to grade the pop quiz?
The answer to all three questions is "false."
Teddy Roosevelt was the second-in-command of the Rough Riders, a mounted unit more correctly known as the 1st Volunteer Cavalry. Roosevelt was the outfit's lieutenant colonel. Leonard Wood, a doctor with a Regular Army background, was the colonel.
As for recruitment, most of the volunteer soldiers were cowboys from Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma in the West and dudes from New York in the East. The regiment was trained at San Antonio, but it descended on the Alamo City -- it was not raised there.
Finally, Roosevelt led a charge -- an unauthorized one -- up an elevation known as Kettle Hill, not the higher, more extensively-defended San Juan Hill. The regular Army took care of that part.
Speaking of being taken care of. The Samuels' book shows Roosevelt was very adept at using the press to his benefit. No reporter who approached the future President for information ever left without a story. Of course, the details might have been exaggerated or not totally correct, but thanks to the press, the American public soon had a new hero from the war with Spain: Roosevelt.
Three years after Roosevelt's charge, he was sworn in as the 26th President of the United States. This book does a fine job of showing how the war, and his overstated role in it, propelled him to the White House.
A couple of other recently published books will appeal to anyone with a general interest in that conflict Roosevelt referred to as "that splendid little war."
The best overview of the conflict is David F. Trask's "The War with Spain in 1898." First published in 1981, it has been reissued in a trade paperback by the University of Nebraska Press. The 654-page book retails for $29.95.
The commanding general of the U.S. Army during the war was Nelson A. Miles, an old Indian fighter and a veteran of the Civil War. The definitive biography of the general is Robert Wooster's "Nelson A. Miles & the Twilight of the Frontier Army." First published in 1993, the book is now available in paperback from the University of Nebraska Press. The 391-page book sells for $18.
The general's role in the Spanish-American War takes up only one chapter in Wooster's solid book, but it shows Miles was a better fighter than administrator.
(September 12, 1997)
Most days the water was so muddy divers could see nothing. Their exploration of the shallow area in the Gulf of Mexico just off Galveston Island had to be accomplished mostly by feel.
They were members of the National Underwater and Marine Agency, searching for the wreckage of a Republic of Texas warship -- the Invincible. They did find what they believed to be the remnants of a 19th Century wooden ship, absolute proof that the wreck was that of the Invincible has so far remained elusive.
One of those on board the ship rocking in the swell above the divers last August was Clive Cussler, novelist and searcher of sunken ships. He and Austin lawyer Wayne Gronquist created NUMA, a non-profit Texas corporation, in 1983. Gronquist is NUMA's president; Cussler is chairman of the board of trustees.
In 1986, it was Cussler who found the buried remains of the Zavala, another Republic of Texas warship. Christened as the Charleston in 1836, the sidewheeler had the distinction of being the first steam powered warship in North America when she was purchased and refitted by the Texian government.
Despite the Zavala's historical significance, her timbers lay under the sand, shell and mud of Galveston Island until Cussler and NUMA found her final resting place. She's still there, beneath a parking lot, awaiting archaeological excavation. But at least her location is fixed.
Cussler tells the story of the search and discovery of the Zavala in his first non-fiction effort, "The Sea Hunters: True Adventures With Famous Shipwrecks," written with Craig Dirgo, a fellow NUMA member. The book at first glance looks like one of Cussler's action-packed novels, and, with the exception of his first-person recollections, it reads like one. Published by Simon & Schuster, the 364-page hardback sells for $24.
"Sea Hunters" covers NUMA's search for 10 shipwrecks and one steam locomotive. Each story begins with a dramatic account of the sought-after vessel's demise, followed with a straight non-fiction piece on the search for and discovery of the ship. (In the case of the missing train, NUMA discovered it hadn't been lost at all. It had all been an insurance scam.)
Cussler also offers some autobiographical reflections and ruminations on the thrill of the hunt. Good non-fiction should read like a novel, and it's clear in reading "Sea Hunt" that for Cussler and Dirgo, also a novelist, the effort did not take much extra literary sail.
While Cussler's book has only one two-part chapter on Texas, anyone wanting more detail on Texas maritime lore will enjoy "Texas Treasure Coast" by Tom Townsend. First published in 1979, the book has been revised and reissued by Eakin Press. The 178-page softcover sells for $16.95.
Townsend's book also has a chapter about the Zavala, as well as other ships of the Texas Navy, including the San Antonio, which disappeared in 1843. Some say she was lost in a Gulf storm, others that her crew mutinied and that she became a slave ship. The only thing for certain is that she was never heard from again after sailing on Aug. 27, 1842 from Galveston toward Yucatan.
Often, a reissue of a book is merely a reprinting. But this edition has been updated by the author, with 3new information inserted into the original text or added at the bottom of the updated chapter in a different type face.
"Texas Treasure Coast" contains 38 stories, ranging from tales of lost Spanish galleons laden with silver from New Spain to 20th Century shipwrecks, including the mystery of the Sulfur Queen, a tanker which disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in the early 1960s.
An appendix to the book lists 336 shipwrecks off the Texas coast. In most cases, the location of the wreck is known, but the appendix lists several with more mysterious terms like "Vanished with all hands, somewhere in Gulf of Mexico" or "Sailed from Sabine for Boston, has not since reported."
A pleasure in each of these books is the language: The practical, colorful and interesting language of the sea. For instance, in nautical language, ships don't turn around, they "come about."
Reading these books is likely to make you load on stores, slip your lines, lay on sail and stand out for the Gulf in search of adventure and treasure.
(September 5, 1997)
There are two broad categories of travel, and I'm not talking about cars and airplanes.
I am referring to traveling without children and traveling with children.
Parents of pre-schoolers may skip the next few paragraphs -- you probably need to go check on your son or daughter anyway -- and then resume reading at the paragraph beginning, "Next time you're trying to decide...."
Anyone with young children will recall the times of spontaneity in travel. "Hey, I know what! Let's go climb Enchanted Rock today."
All this trip took was a bit of quick packing and maybe a quarter tank of gas.
But traveling with a pre-schooler is no longer a spur-of-the-moment undertaking. To get from point A to point B, savvy parents need to pack extra clothing, snacks, drinks, toys -- I'm probably forgetting something. I usually do.
"We forgot her juice" often causes a return to the house from several blocks or a mile or so away.
And then there is the problem of destination. Seeing an impressionist exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art will not be particularly high on your child's must-do list. Neither would they be into a romantic evening on the Riverwalk in San Antonio or browsing antique shops in Salado.
No. Difficult as it is for us adults to grasp, children only want to do things they want to do. When they want to do it.
Just getting a pre-schooler into his or her carseat takes considerable managerial skill.
Recently, I told daughter Hallie we were thinking about going on vacation.
"I want to see animals," she said.
More particularly, she wanted to see alligators.
That ruled out the Big Bend, though Texas is home to an estimated 200,000 alligators. Rather than go tromping around in some southeast Texas bayou, however, I will show Hallie some alligators the easy way.
We will go to a zoo.
Next time you're trying to decide where you can go in Texas with your kids -- and have fun -- you might want to consult Allan C. Kimballs' "Texas Family Adventure Guide. Published by the Globe Pequot Press (P.O. Box 833, Old Saybrook, CT, 06475), the 224-page softcover sells for $11.95.
The book covers Texas by region, listing interesting things to see or do by city or town name. Kimball covers the basics, but focuses on places, as the Chamber of Commerce brochures say, "where the whole family is welcome."
Also included in the book are suggested places to eat as well as recommended places to spend the night.
The book has scores of listings for zoos or other places where animals may be seen. Including, on page 174, information about an operation in Orange called Super Gator Tours. For $15 for an adult, $10 for a child, you will be zipped around on an airboat and see "alligators, nutria, frogs, turtles, egrets, and a variety of visiting waterfowl."
Please, don't tell Hallie about this tour. Maybe one of these days I'll surprise her, but for the time being, I think we'll stick to the zoos.