(April 24, 1998)
John Miller Morris sat hopefully at the small table, poised to sign copies of his new book.
And people at the book fair definitely were slowing as they approached the booth where his latest literary effort was offered for sale. It was the title that was getting their attention: "Sex, Drugs and the Dallas Cowboys."
Of course, that's not really the name of Morris' most recent work and has nothing to do with its actual subject matter. A writer with a sense of humor, he had made the sign with the bogus title on his personal computer just for the fun of it. But given the consumer interest it seemed to be generating, the title certainly says something about Texas tastes.
The real title of Morris' book is "El Llano Estacado: Exploration and Imagination on the High Plains of Texas and New Mexico, 1536-1860." Not as catchy as the author's satirical title, but it proves again the folly of essaying to judge a book solely on its cover. "El Llano Estacado" (Texas State Historical Association, 414 pages, hardback, $39.95) is a benchmark book, one likely to win awards and remembrance.
The Llano Estacado is a sprawling geographic feature spanning parts of Texas and New Mexico, extending from the Canadian River on the north to below Odessa on the south. It covers some 50,000 square miles. This mesaland features no great mountains or rivers, just high, flat land. Yet, as Morris shows, it has lured a succession of Spanish, French, Mexican and American explorers.
Morris traces the history of this land through the stories of its explorers and assesses how they saw they land, which was not always accurately. One U.S. military officer, for example, considered the high plains to be a waterless wasteland, "the great Sahara of North America."
Its physical features have long been familiar to us, but it is a land that still holds some secrets.
The first explorer of this vast tableland was Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Everyone agrees on that. But the route he took depends on the historian whose work is consulted.
The Amarillo Chamber of Commerce will tell you that Coronado camped in Palo Duro Canyon, the beautiful "Grand Canyon" of Texas. But based on his research and interpretation of the written record, Morris believes the Spaniard and his entrada spent most of their time in Blanco Canyon in what are now Floyd and Crosby Counties, not Palo Duro Canyon farther to the north.
Recent archaeological finds seem to support Morris' thesis, though the figurative smoking escopeda (a muzzle-loaded Spanish firearm) has yet to be found.
Because of the research and perspective-putting that went into it, "El Llano Estacado" will stand as a landmark book. But it is not easy reading for a couple of reasons. For one, it is a serious, scholarly work, weighted with words or terms like "geosophy," "mimesis," and "semiotic systems." And the text is in a typeface that is a click or two of the mouse too small for most middle-aged readers. But that's a design issue unrelated to the overall quality of the book's content.
The early Spanish penetration of the Llano Estacado was in quest of gold, the legendary Quivira.
Seeking treasure, Morris continued, "in all its forms -- still motivates the mind in this land of beauty and frustration. There is one comparable and perhaps equally glorious Southwestern pursuit: the search for truth."
"El Llano Estacado" is, unlike the mythical treasures of the seven cities of Cibola, a tangible manifestation of that search for truth.
(April 17, 1998)
Less than a week before the battle that would win the Texas Revolution, Sam Houston and his soldiers learned that 347 of their comrades-in-arms serving under Col. James W. Fannin had been executed after being taken prisoner near Goliad.
That's why, on April 21, 1836, the enraged Texians who attacked Gen. Santa Anna and a portion of his force at the river of Saint Hyacinth (in Spanish, San Jacinto) were shouting not only "Remember the Alamo" but "Remember Goliad."
In 18 minutes, it was over. More than 600 Mexican soldiers were killed compared to only a handful of Texans. Texas' independence would stick.
The approaching 162nd anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto will not be marked with the publication of any new books on the battle itself, but two recently-published works deal with events leading to that brief but furious spring encounter that changed American history.
The first is "The Alamo Sourcebook: A Comprehensive Guide to the Alamo and the Texas Revolution" by Tim J. and Terry S. Todish. Published by Eakin Press, the 215-page softover sells for $21.95.
As its title suggests, this is a reference guide for serious students of the fight between Texas and Mexico, covering everything from the type of tents each Army had to mini-profiles of the major participants in the revolution. With illustrations by Ted Spring, the book serves as a good overview of the events leading to the Alamo and the conclusion of the war at San Jacinto.
The second book, also from Eakin, is "Remember Goliad: Their Silent Tents" by Clifford Hopewell (170 pages, $19.95.)
Goliad is the generic term for the events leading to the surrender and March 27 execution of Col. James W. Fannin Jr. and his troops near Presidio La Bahia outside Goliad. Fannin, the only Texas military commander with any West Point training, also had the distinction of being the Texian's least competent ranking officer. Even so, he and his men did fight bravely before their surrender. And then they were treated like pirates, not like prisoners of war.
An item about Fannin's family at the end of Hopewell's book has haunted me since I read it.
When Fannin came to Texas in 1834, he was married and the father of two little girls, Minerva and Pinckney. The oldest daughter, Minerva, was named after her mother.
After the Palm Sunday massacre of Fannin and his men, Mrs. Fannin and the two girls were taken to Velasco, where they stayed with William H. Jack. The colonel's widow died the next year. Hopewell's book does not mention the cause of her death.
The youngest of the Fannin girls, Pinckney, died in 1847, only 15 years old.
That left Minerva the only survivor of the family. But in her case, survivor was a relative term. In 1862, she was committed to what is now known as the Austin State Hospital. Back then, long before the words "mental" and "health" were used together in describing a person's psychological state, the state facility was called the insane asylum.
For the next 31 years, Minerva remained institutionalized. Only death on July 27, 1893 freed her from confinement by the state that her father's death had had a hand in making possible.
Hopewell's book was on Goliad, not Minerva Fannin, but it left me fixated on that orphan's fate. Who knows what circumstances led to her commitment to what in the mid 19th century could not even euphemistically be referred to as a mental hospital?
Whatever it was -- mental illness, a personality disorder, alcoholism, depression -- being orphaned by the Texas Revolution surely was a factor that contributed toward whatever led to her three decades as a ward of the state. While we're remembering the Alamo, Goliad and San Jacinto this spring, maybe we ought to think a little about Minerva too.
(April 10, 1998)
In the spring of 1922 an old newspaperman presented Abilene's McMurry University -- then a college -- a unique gift.
For more than a half-century, James A. Lowry had been keeping scrapbooks, meticulously clipping material from newspapers, magazines and pamphlets and then pasting the items into an assortment of hardbound books. He recycled everything from outdated committee reports to old Congressional Records for use as scrapbooks.
"When the collection is classified," then McMurry president J.W. Hunt told a newspaper correspondent, "the college will have a perfect reservoir of facts and fancies, fiction, science, art, poetry, philosophy, humor, oratory, history -- everything."
Lowry's donation to the new Methodist school, which had just opened, included several hundred scrapbooks. In late 20th century vernacular, the gift was something of a compact disc (albeit not very compact and consisting only of words on paper, not electronically-stored digits), a cultural record of America and Texas from a time when hostile Indians still raided in West Texas up to the year commercial radio broadcasting began in the state.
"This scrapbook fancy has clung to me from childhood," Lowry said after McMurry gratefully accepted his life's work. "I have found delight in the work, especially during the later years, when it began to dawn upon me that I could make it both interesting and useful."
Lowry and the railroad came to West Texas about the same time, in the 1880s. He founded the Taylor County News, and later included a complete file of the newspaper in his donation to McMurry.
Even as his eyesight began to fail in his old age, Lowry kept clipping and pasting. Culled by his busy shears were lines of poetry, short stories (including all the pieces by O. Henry he could find), short sermons, news stories on the temperance movement, holidays, anniversaries, memorials (obituaries), "campfire war stories," and "special topics, etc."
As someone with McMurry wrote when Lowry's scrapbooks were displayed at the school's library shortly after their acquisition, "Anybody can make a scrapbook, but to make interesting and useful, scrapbooks require literary talent, artistic taste, editorial ability, scissors, brush, paste and patience."
Though the extent and quality of Lowry's scrapbook collection was extraordinary, the practice of pasting clippings on pages between hardcovers was not unusual.
In 1941, seeking to attract young readers, the Dallas Morning News wisely promoted the idea of clipping stories and illustrations from its pages and keeping them in scrapbooks. "Make Your Own Encyclopedia" suggested a four-page brochure distributed by the newspaper. "Begin today your own record book, to which you may refer throughout life."
The newspaper's copywriter even supercharged the noun "scrapbook" into a gerund, "scrapbookin'."
My grandmother, a child of late Victorian times, kept scrapbooks and succeeded in interesting me in the process. Later, elementary and junior high school teachers of my era required their pupils to keep notebooks on specific subjects. These were scrapbooks, but the word "notebook" sounded more academic.
Well into the final quarter of this century, commercially produced scrapbooks, so labeled, were sold in five and dime stores and office supply firms. Photo albums are still sold, but the old-style scrapbooks of blank pulp pages between fancy covers tied with shoelace-like string are no longer produced.
Today, with "paste" better known as a word processing command icon than as a synonym for glue or gluing, the notion of pasting things in a scrapbook sounds as decidedly Victorian as it was. On the Internet, information from the vital to the arcane, from poetry to x-rated "etc." is available at the click of a mouse. But just try finding it.
The Wall Street Journal reported recently that despite the millions of Web pages out there in Cyberspace, a study shows that the various search engines are far from equal to the task of finding the particular subject you want.
Ready accessibility is what makes any surviving scrapbooks such useful cultural artifacts, though given the frailty of acid-based newsprint, they have to be handled carefully. They are valuable because someone already has done the searching, accumulating material by topic. With a scrapbook, a useful compendium of information on a particular subject exists in one easy to use medium pasted on a page.
Sure, a researcher could glean the same information by reading microfilm -- provided he has strong eyesight and a few years of his life to devote to the project.
As the McMurry College president observed after the school accepted Lowery's gift, "the mere physical work involved in the compilation (of the scrapbooks) would take 10 years, at the rate of eight hours per day."
Another variable that makes good scrapbooks so important: Backfile availability of publications no longer in business is far from universal. Many runs of magazines and newspapers no longer exist, their content lost forever. Unless someone like James Lowry saved them for us.
(April 4, 1998)
Maybe the gale force wind irritated the ghosts as much as it did me.
With gusts up to 41 miles an hour, a small craft advisory was up for the lower Texas coast. My planned Laguna Madre fishing trip had been swamped by the unusually high wind off the Gulf of Mexico, an annoying zephyr caused by a giant low pressure system far to the north.
The palms rustled in the howling wind as I settled in for the night at a motel at old Fort Brown in Brownsville and began perusing a book on the history of South Texas. It sounded spooky, but an ethereal presence would not have had even a ghost of a chance in this gale.
Earlier that evening, over dinner with friends in Matamoras, I'd been told about ghostly happenings at the old military post, now home to the University of Texas at Brownsville. My informant gave me the name of a woman who supposedly has heard a long dead bugler playing taps and the sound of clinking tack as men and horses formed on the old parade ground.
A campus police officer later told me he had not personally heard or seen any ghosts at the fort but others had reported supernatural sightings and sounds to him.
The motel is on an island in the half moon-shaped resaca at the old fort. Until 1911, that island had been home to the post cemetery, the final resting place for numerous soldiers who died at Fort Brown in combat or from diseases like yellow fever. All the remains were exhumed and moved to a national cemetery in Louisiana.
Even though I slept over an old graveyard that night, no ghosts made their appearance.
Brownsville, a city that feels like a little New Orleans and a lot like Mexico, is one of the most historic cities in Texas.
Several recently-published books deal with Brownsville, the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas in general.
For anyone interested in reading up on this part of Texas, the best place to start is "A Wild and Vivid Land: An Illustrated History of the South Texas Border" by Laredo historian Jerry Thompson. Published by the Texas State Historical Association, the 206-page hardback sells for $29.95.
Thompson's history of South Texas begins with the story of its first human residents, the Coahuiltecans. Spanish colonials settled along the Rio Grande in the mid-1700s, followed by citizens of a republic born of revolution, Mexico. Though the lower valley had been populated with people of Indian and European descent for generations, it was the war between the United States and Mexico that permanently settled the question of who would control the north side of the Rio Grande.
The approach of that conflict in 1846 brought the establishment of Fort Brown, which continued as a military post until the end of World War II. A heavy federal presence in Brownsville remains today, but now the people in uniform are Border Patrol and Customs agents, not soldiers, and the war is with illegal immigrants and drug smugglers, not a nation.
One of the singular events in the history of the Valley was the so-called Brownsville Raid. On Aug. 13, 1906, a group of newly-arrived black soldiers were involved in a disturbance with citizens of Brownsville. One resident was killed and the police chief wounded. Three companies of infantry -- 167 men -- were summarily booted out of the Army by President Theodore Roosevelt.
In the late 1960s, John D. Weaver wrote what stands as the definitive study of this racial incident, "The Brownsville Raid." Texas A&M University Press has published what amounts to a book-length epilogue to that story, "The Senator and the Sharecropper's Son: Exoneration of the Brownsville Soldiers." (Hardback, 271 pages, $29.95.)
In this well-done book, Weaver focuses on two men who figured in the story, Ohio Senator Joseph B. Foraker, who risked his political career by protesting Roosevelt's action, and Dorsie Willis, in the early 1970s the last survivor of the black soldiers mustered out of service. In 1972, Willis and his fellow infantrymen were exonerated by Congress, which voted to make their discharge honorable.
History is about what has changed. While the land itself is more enduring, it, too, has changed.
In "Adios to the Brushlands," author Arturo Longoria of McAllen, a teacher and writer, demonstrates just how much the Valley has changed in his lifetime, which began in 1948. The 118-page book from Texas A&M University Press is available at $19.95.
The book is Longoria's well-written personal lament of the shrinkage of the brushland in favor of agriculture, which is one of the Valley's economic mainstays, and a call for preservation of what little of the chaparral country remains.
An excellent companion to Longoria's book is "A Field Guide to Common South Texas Shrubs." Written by Richard B. Taylor, Jimmy Rutledge and Joe G. Herrera and published by Texas Parks and Wildlife Press (distributed by the University of Texas Press), the 106-page guidebook sells for $9.95.
Any of these four books are good windy night reading.