(July 31, 1998)
A stack of old books may hold much more than the titles suggest. Pick one up, check the fly leaves and title page, thumb through it for the magic passages older books often contain--the bizarre, the humorous, the historic, the prophetic, the philosophical.
An inscription by the late Bertha Dobie on the title page of her husband's posthumously published Rattlesnakes:
"Every time Frank Dobie wrote something about rattlesnakes for the newspapers, more incidents, observations, tales poured in, and he would use the new material to make more articles. The publishers and I put most of them into this book.
"And still the talk goes on. Just a few weeks ago a level-headed old woman told me, with much circumstantial detail, of having seen little snakes run into a rattlesnake's mouth. She had gone out to restake a grazing horse. Her son, who was with her--a small child then, corroborated her story. He said there were eleven tiny snakes. Bertha Dobie 2-16-66."
From General Laws of the Twelfth Legislature of the State of Texas, published by J.G. Tracy, State Printer, in 1871:
"Whereas, the following persons (11 men named) overtook and gallantly attacked and defeated the said band, killing four of their number and recovered the stolen property.
"Be it resolved, That one Winchester carbine belonging to the State to be presented by the State to each of the above-mentioned persons, upon his depositing in the geological room of the Capitol his share of the trophies captured, and that the Secretary of State is hereby authorized to make the presentation herein provided for.
"Approved April 12, 1871."
Too bad the author of that joint resolution was not a bit more specific about where the Indian fight had taken place or where the men were from. If the men did collect their lever-action rifles, the "trophies" they were to deliver may have been lost when the Capitol burned a decade later. The joint resolution on page 156 of this old law book may be about the only tangible evidence of the encounter.
From All the Shadows Went Away: A philosophical treatise of the true pursuits of a cowboy during the second decade of the twentieth century, by Ben L. Parker, a mule story:
An old cowboy went to town and got thoroughly drunk. He stumbled out to his wagon and lay down in the bed of the buckboard, knowing his mules would find their way home without his help.
When the mules got the wagon home, the man's son went out to investigate. He saw his father passed out in the wagon. The boy unhitchd the mules and put them out in the pasture.
At sunup, the son looked out of the ranch house and saw his father shading his eyes from the sun, scanning the horizon. The old man was mumbling, "Well, I've either found a damn good wagon, else I've lost a damn good pair of mules."
Such language would never do for the author of "Martine's Sensible Letter Writer; Being a Comprehensible and Complete Guide and Assistant for Those Who Desire to Carry on an Epistolary Correspondence." The book was published in New York in 1866, a study in courtesy coming a year after the end of the bloodiest war in American history.
On page 111 are examples of how to write a friend "requesting the Loan of a Book" and how one should reply. The request:
ASir, B While last at your house, you called my attention to a book entitled . . . which I remember as a work of so much interest that I feel much inclined to peruse it, and should esteem it a great favor if you would lend it to me. I will take great care of it, and return it in a few days (20th Century columnist's editorial comment: one of the world's great lies) as I have at present abundant leisure for reading.
"I am, sir,
"Your obedient servant."
This is the "Affirmative Answer to the Foregoing:"
"Dear Sir, -- You are quite welcome to the volume you express a wish to read, but I must ask you to let me have it by the middle of next month, as I shall then have occasion to use it for some literary purposes.
"Believe me, dear sir, Yours very truly, . . ."
(July 24, 1998)
A mid-summer's mail miscellany:
A column on Jefferson, ghosts and books about East Texas brought a letter from Mrs. W.B. Lawrence of Amarillo about her niece, Anita Dronet McCoy of Shreveport. (It's in Louisiana, but may as well be in East Texas.)
McCoy told her aunt about the grave on an old plantation between Shreveport and Jefferson of a young man who died while visiting Mexico. A marble angel marks his final resting place.
I'll let Mrs. Lawrence take it from here:
"The legend goes that every night at the stroke of midnight this marble angel weeps real tears...Anita thought the tears part should be checked out. Armed with a flash light she and friends were at the cemetery at midnight. Neither Anita's husband nor any of the rest of the group would go to the tomb with her. She said she had located the angel's face and was trying to determine just how to direct the beam from beneath when a flock of wild birds who were roosting in the shrubbery flew up and frightened her speechless.
"I asked her, 'What about the tears?'
"'I don't know. My hands were shaking so much I could scarcely hold the flashlight.'"
From Steve Speir of Austin, whose favorite television show aside from "Davy Crockett at the Alamo" is "Married with Children" (Steve is single with no issue), the report of a network TV reference to Fred Gipson's classic children's novel (and movie), "Old Yeller":
"Peg: Oh, Al, I don't know why I ever married you. You promised me in high school we would travel and see the world.
(Peg wants Al to take her to France.)
"Al: Peg, you know we don't have the money....And you knew this too -- or have you forgotten?
"I do not floss...I do not eat vegetables...I do not eat French pastries...I do not cry at movies EXCEPT, OF COURSE, FOR OLD YELLER, which we all know is sad beyond description and a classic.
"I do not go to head shrinkers.
"And I do not go to France."
Gipson, who grew up in Mason and never went to France either, spent most of his life in the Texas hill country. He wrote other books but "Old Yeller" stands as one of the best children's novels ever, right up there with "Charlotte's Web," "Black Beauty," and "The Yearling." He died in 1973 and is buried in the State Cemetery near J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb.
Bill Murray also had an "Old Yeller" line in the movie where he steals a tank.
Clearly, Gipson's 1956 novel and Walt Disney's 1957 film adaptation still have a lot of resonance with Baby Boomers.
Austin author and band leader Ken Ragsdale has departed on a new adventure. He has a contract with the University of Texas Press to do a book on the history of Austin aviation from 1914, the year that the first plane landed in the city, to the opening of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
"While there is much aviation data available in libraries and archives," Ragsdale writes, "I am especially seeking those individuals who have collected aviation memorabilia -- newspaper clippings, photographs, log books, personal experiences, etc."
Contact Ragsdale at 512-453-9709 if you have anything you want to share for posterity.
True West Magazine, founded in Austin in 1953 by the late writer-editor-publisher Joe Small, is celebrating its 45th birthday this summer.
The July issue has a special section called "Remembering True West" with articles by assorted western writers with recollections of Small and the magazine he started.
Small published the magazine in Austin until the early 1980s, when he sold it. The magazine changed hands once after that and is now published in Stillwater, OK.
True West, and Frontier Times -- the other magazine Small owned -- preserved a lot of grassroots Texas and Western history, much of which has ended up in books citing one or the other of the magazines.
Finally, in response to a column on book curses, those not-too-gentle reminders to book borrowers usually found on book plates or book markers, a letter from John Thompson of Austin with a curse remembered from high school in the early 1940s:
"Steal not this book, for if you do
The worth of it will follow you.
"And when you die the Lord will say,
Where is that book you stole away?
"And if you say, 'I cannot tell,'
The Lord will cast you into Hell!"
Or send you to Texas in a record-breaking El Nino summer!
(July 17, 1998)
At that particular moment in the summer of 1848, Friedrich Schlecht might have been the bravest man in Texas.
Riding alone near the Frio River southwest of San Antonio, Schlecht saw a thread of smoke coming from a mott of oak trees in the distance. Thirsty and hungry, he spurred his horse toward the stand of timber, hopeful of an invitation to dinner from some fellow traveler.
But when Schlecht and his mount got close enough to see a large campfire, his horse stopped in its tracks.
"Surrounding the fire stood small, naked creatures the likes of which I have never encountered," Schlecht later wrote in German. "I then looked to my side, and the blood almost froze in my veins. Behind every tree there stood a Comanche staring at me intensely."
The 32-year-old blue-eyed German, wearing a wide-brimmed gray hat, a red wool shirt, black deerskin pants and high boots, continued to regard the Indians, and they him, "in a deathly silence."
Had Schlecht made a wrong move, the story might have ended there. But he remembered what a more savvy Texan had told him to do if he ran across Comanches: Dismount, hang his weapons on his saddle, approach whoever seemed to be in charge and greet him "with an air of confidence."
Schlecht spotted an older Indian that he took for the chief and headed toward him, extending his hand while "displaying a friendly and natural face."
For a moment, the Comanche looked at the unexpected visitor with "piercing eyes." Then the chief offered his hand.
This scene and the fascinating details that follow it is from "Mein Ausflug Nach Texas" -- "On to Texas!" -- Schlecht's account of his initial visit to the state in 1848. First published in 1851, the book has been an extremely rare collector's item for generations. In fact, only three copies of the book, printed in Germany in German, are known to exist.
Now, thanks to translator-editor Charles Patrick of Manor, Schlecht's narrative is available in English for the first time. (Some excerpts had previously been translated, but not the full text.) Published by Indio Bravo Press (P.O. Box 711, Manor, Texas, 78653) the 264-page book sells for $25 plus $2 postage. The virtually unknown book, illustrated with drawings by Schlecht and period engravings from other 19th Century publications, will be released Saturday in Bellville as part of the community's 150th birthday celebration. Schlecht settled in Austin County and lived near Bellville until his death in 1874.
Like so many other Germans who came to Texas in the mid-19th Century, Schlecht left behind his family and friends during the political turmoil associated with the Revolution of 1848. Arriving in Galveston after 60 days at sea, Schlecht spent the summer of 1848 traveling the young state, by riverboat from the seaport up Buffalo Bayou to Houston and then on into the interior via, at various times, ox-drawn wagon, stagecoach and horse.
While exploring the state, Schlecht found plenty of opportunities to indulge his passion for hunting, from dove to alligators. But he missed his family and decided to go home.
Texas, however, had captured his spirit. Schlecht returned to Texas in 1857 and soon sent for his wife and two daughters. He bought 32 acres near Bellville, and stayed for good. His friends called him "Texas Fritz."
"On to Texas!" offers an interesting picture of Texas as a frontier state, including Schlecht's riveting description of his encounter with the Comanches, something many people of that era never survived to relate.
The chief of the band Schlecht ran into correctly concluded that Schlecht was German, and was able to communicate that the Comanches respected the Germans for not breaking their treaty with the Indians. As they talked, Schlecht watched as one of two Comanche women summoned by the chief ground coffee beans in a metal mortar. She then immersed the freshly ground coffee in boiling water.
A short time later, Schlecht wrote, "the first woman brought two small turtle shells filled with coffee, one of which she gave to the chief and the other to me. Despite the fact that there was no cream or sugar, this coffee tasted quite delicious. In response to my question as to where they got this coffee, the chief pointed towards the south, apparently meaning Mexico, where the Comanches would go on raids every year."
This is the first reference I've ever run across that Comanches had a taste for coffee, a drink usually associated with those of European heritage. The best two books on the Comanches, Ernest Wallace's "The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains" (University of Oklahoma Press, 1952) and T.R. Fehrenbach's "Comanches: The Destruction of a People" (Knopf, 1974) don't mention that these Indians enjoyed a caffeine beverage.
Given Schlecht's eye for detail, exemplified by his description of a fearsome Comanche chief politely providing a surprise guest with coffee, Patrick's translation of this book is a significant contribution to Texas cultural history. (Though the book is full of interesting material, Schlecht's narrative mentions coffee quite a bit, from the horrible swill he had on the ship coming to Texas to the basic Texas breakfast of 1848: coffee, cornbread and bacon. Clearly, Schlecht liked his java.)
As a 19th Century Texas travelogue, "On to Texas!" is certainly not unique, but it is among the more readable of the Texas narratives written by Germans. Schlecht, born in 1816, obviously was well-educated. Beyond that, he was a good writer, equally capable of clarity and colorful description. Some German visitors to Texas wrote accounts as stiffly formal as their culture's stereotypical image, but Schlecht's writing is as easy-going as many of the Texans he met that summer of 1848.
Schlecht clearly liked Texas and its people, though there weren't very many of them back then.
"It was a land that lacked nothing except people, great numbers of people to fill its wide, empty spaces and thus make it a happy place," he wrote.
"On to Texas!" will stand as an important resource for anyone interested in Texas' German heritage.
(July 10, 1998)
This just in: Texas is a big state.
Sure, if you live in the Northeastern part of the nation, where a person can travel through several states in an afternoon, Texas must seem like an endless stretch of geography. But we Texans sometimes take our state for granted, forgetting that yes, it really is big.
Since late March, various circumstances, ranging from work to pleasure, have caused me to become reacquainted with the size of Texas. Lately I've been from Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park to Nacogdoches in East Texas (50 miles this side of Louisiana) and from Perryton in the Panhandle (46 miles south of Liberal, Kan.) to Brownsville. The map says there are a lot of miles between those places, and I can testify that the cartography is correct. Every one of those miles is there.
It's not the distance, however, that is the most striking thing about our state. It's the differences. Perryton, Texas, seat of Ochiltree County, could just as easily be in Kansas. But between Perryton and the next town down the road, Miami (the one in Roberts County, not Dade County, Fla.), the landscape changes entirely -- and suddenly -- to the canyons and cottonwoods of the Canadian River breaks.
That's a change, but going from Perryton to Nacogdoches is like going from Mars to Venus. Nacogdoches, with its pine trees and southern culture could as easily be in Louisiana or Mississippi. Far to the south, Brownsville and Mexico are separately only by a river.
As State Rep. Pete Patterson pointed out recently, Texas is really three different states, no matter how it looks on the map. The State of West Texas is that portion of our landscape on the left side of I-35, looking north. The State of East Texas is to the right of I-35. Everything south of San Antonio is the State of South Texas. The only thing Rep. Patterson forgot to mention was the City State of Houston.
I'm not advocating any separatist movements here, though others have in the past. But it is a good idea to keep in mind just how different we are.
That difference is more than geographical. It's cultural, and one aspect of culture is folklore. The Texas Folklore Society has recently reissued "The Best of Texas Folk and Folklore, 1916-1954." Edited by Mody C. Boatright, Wilson M. Hudson and Allen Maxwell, the book was first published 44 years ago and has been out of print for some time.
With a new introduction by Francis Abernethy, director of the 90-year-old Folklore Society, the 356-page book has been brought back out by the University of North Texas Press. It sells for $18.95.
"The Best of Texas Folk and Folklore" demonstrates the fascinating diversity of our folklore, from ghost stories told by Hispanics in the El Paso valley to songs sung along the Colorado River on old plantation land during the latter part of the 19th Century by the sons and daughters of slaves. The anthology also includes treasure tales from South Texas, cattle driving lore from Northwest Texas and stories from the oil patch.
In addition to stories, this collection contains old Texas sayings, games, cures, superstitions and songs.
Some of the material in this collection is no longer considered politically correct, as Abernethy points out in his new introduction.
"We present this folklore as the best and most representative of its time -- not ours -- with no apologies for the attitudes of our parents and grandparents," Abernethy writes. "Right or wrong by 1998 standards, the people who collected and printed this folklore were the intellectuals of their time and were as socially sensitive and sympathetic as we are in ours."
"The Best of Texas Folk and Folklore" is delightful sampler, a reminder of differences and distances in a state big enough for both.
(July 3, 1998)
The arrangement of their village reflected basic considerations of survival. Put up on the high ground above the river, the better to catch the breeze and avoid mosquitos, their domed shelters stood under trees to shade them from the intense summer sun.
For thousands of years, nomadic peoples -- hunters and gathers like the long-vanished Aranama and Tamique -- came to this spot on the Guadalupe River in what is now Victoria County and stayed as long as it suited them.
This village, however, was different. The shelters were nylon tents, not crude huts. The people who pitched them in June brought computers, sophisticated metal detecting equipment, cameras, sunscreen, chemical toilets and a drive nearly as powerful as survival: To learn. They were hunting and gathering artifacts, not food. A caterer provided the grub.
The occasion of this gathering at a ranch on the Guadalupe northwest of Victoria was the 38th annual Texas Archaeological Society Field School. Some 300 volunteers, from retired executives to students, came to spend a week digging and sifting in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave. Their efforts were coordinated by graduate students and professional archaeologists, including Dr. Thomas R. Hester, director of the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory at the University of Texas.
Prehistoric Indians lived at this point on the river as early as 7000 BC. In 1726, the Spanish established a mission here in the hope of converting the Aranama and Tamique to Christianity. The priests and the soldiers who came to protect them stayed here 23 years before abandoning the location in favor of a site on the San Antonio River near what is now Goliad.
Like the carefully measured excavations around the mission ruins which showed the passage of time in the stratigraphy of the soil, the story of Mission Espiritu Santo De Zuniga can be pondered on different levels.
On the near primal level is man's lust for treasure.
A 1915 photograph of the old mission shows it was nearly intact, more than a century-and-a-half after its abandonment. By 1936, when the state put up a gray granite historical marker at the site, the mission was nearly gone.
During that 21-year period, a mere blink of time to archaeologists, treasure hunters did tremendous damage to the site. Maybe J. Frank Dobie's classic treasure book, "Coronado's Children," fed the imagination of these anonymous diggers. Or maybe the destructive digging was stimulated by the hard times of the Depression.
If the many holes around the mission ever gave up anything but dirt and the normal hubris of human occupation, no one ever went public with the information.
The almost always elusive hunt for buried treasure is a matter of folklore. Archaeologists are more interested in science. They collect evidence, prove and disprove various theses, and write reports. These documents, most of them book length, are wonderful sources for professional and amateur historians.
The Archaeological Research Laboratory has published 28 reports as part of its Studies in Archaeology series, including Tamra L. Walter's "The Dynamics of Culture Change and its Reflections in the Archaeological Record at Espiritu Santo de Zuniga, Victoria County, Texas." The 72-page report is out of print but scheduled for republication.
(You don't usually find archaeological reports in book stores, but they are available in the larger libraries and from the agency or organization that published them. The Texas Historical Commission, the Center for Archaeological Research at UT San Antonio, the Southern Texas Archaeological Association, the Texas Department of Transportation and other agencies, associations and consulting firms also publish archaeological reports.)
Walter, researching her master's thesis, first dug at the Victoria County mission site in 1995. She was back in the summer of 1997 and again this June. Now she's working on her doctorate. Under Dr. Hester's supervision, Walter is interested in a better understanding of the clash of cultures -- a phenomenon as old as mankind and as contemporary as the latest headline from Bosnia.
"When two different groups of people with contrasting social organizations collide, full incorporation of one group into the other is a near impossibility," Walter wrote.
We know that the arrival of Europeans in Texas was the beginning of the end for most of the indigenous cultures, but there is much to learn about what actually happened.
Walter believes the Indians at Espiritu Santo resisted missionization and, for the most part, stuck to their way of life despite the best efforts of the Spanish. On the other hand, these Indians probably adopted some aspects of Spanish culture, including beneficial technologies (iron tools and better pottery) and a taste for beef, an animal previously unknown to them. Also, the Spanish, faced with their own need to survive, likely adopted some Indian ways.
The site was occupied for more than two decades, but it has not yielded archaeologists so much as one coin.
"The only silver we found was one piece of silver thread, probably from a religious garment," Hester said.
The lost treasure of Espiritu Santa is not a cache of silver or gold, but the hundreds of artifacts found in this summer's dig and the knowledge they may provide.