Texana Book Reviews -- October 1998
(by Mike Cox)


Texas Travel Guide for Dogs
(October 30, 1998)

The carpet in the back of my sport utility vehicle is still full of coarse, reddish hair, and I'm in no hurry to clean it out.

That's where Rosie, our six-year-old Golden Retriever, used to ride. We took her to parks and beaches when we could, which in retrospect was not anywhere near often enough.

Rosie was part of our family. She was our first "child" and later, Deputy Mom and Big Sister to our daughter Hallie. Like all good dogs, for her the term "unconditional love" was redundant.

Last summer, as Hallie played in our front yard, someone driving a blue pickup truck ran over Rosie when she ran out in the street. The person who did it--Hallie says it was a man (only in the sense of his gender)--kept driving.

Rosie was left writhing on the pavement with a broken back. Using a blanket, Linda and I got her into my truck and rushed her to an emergency veterinary clinic. After looking at an X-ray, the vet said there was nothing we could do for her but put her down.

So, with the wisdom that only sad hindsight brings, if you have a beloved family pet, do things with it as frequently as you can, while you can.

And buy a copy of a book funny enough to dry the tears from my eyes when I think about Rosie and the kind of person who would hit a 75-pound dog and not stop, while a little girl watched: "The Texas Dog Lover's Companion" by Larry D. Hodge (Foghorn Press, 656 pages, $20.95).

The book is the first-ever Texas travel guide for people with dogs. It lists places where dogs are welcome, rating them on a scale of a fireplug (suitable only for "dewatering" your dog) to one to four paws, depending on the dog-friendliness factor.

A good book offers more than its title suggests, and "The Texas Dog Lover's Companion" is a good book. What makes it good is that Hodge has personalized it, crafting it as something of a Texas-only version of "Travels with Charlie." Unlike John Steinbeck, whose faithful canine companion was Charlie, Hodge traveled with two dogs, Sport and Samantha.

Hodge could have written a simple, to-the-point guidebook, but his Steinbeck-like opus is full of observation and insight into Texas as well as the human and canine condition. Writing about a park in Houston, for instance, he mentions that he went to a nearby branch library to re-read a passage from the classic novel, "Old Yeller," by the late Mason writer Fred Gipson.

Hodge and his two dogs put 25,000 miles on his sport utility vehicle (Hodge says his Sport appreciates the fact that Detroit bestowed her name on a whole vehicular genre) in researching "The Texas Dog Lover's Companion."

Following a 20-page, philosophy-filled introductory overview on traveling with dogs (and in which Sport and Samantha are brought on stage), Hodge covers the state region by region. He and his co-researchers sniffed their way across the state, checking parks, places to eat and sleep and even places where you can take your pet shopping.

Hodge found most of Texas pretty accommodating when it comes to dogs, but it's clear that he didn't mind leaving Lubbock in his rearview mirror. "Unfortunately, for dogs there are few positives," Hodge writes of Lubbock. "Dogs must be leashed everywhere, and we could find few places that actually welcomed them. For dogs, anyway, Lubbock seems destined to remain a stop on the way to someplace better."

One "someplace better," he wrote, is Amarillo. Hodge likes its climate and friendliness -- to people and their pooches.

Hodge's guidebook is a sometimes funny and always entertaining and useful travel reference even if you aren't traveling with Rover. If a hotel, eating place or park won't accept dogs, who would want to go there anyway?

As Hodge writes, "Texas is going to the dogs. And it's about time."

Hodge's book is a delightful salute to Texas and to dogs, from Old Yeller to Sport, Samantha and -- in sentiment, to Rosie.

"It's the land that brings out what's inside us," Hodge quotes one savvy Big Bend resident as saying about her corner of Texas. "There's a beauty and clarity I believe you find only in open spaces."

And, Hodge adds, "in the eyes of a dog."


Keeping Books Dry
(October 23, 1998)

The mid-October Central Texas flooding claimed lives and millions of dollars in property. Among that property were books.

Some possessions -- clothing, bedding, even some types of furniture -- can dry out after getting soaked by water. But when it comes to books, water may as well be acid. Water stains pages, warps covers, and leads to mildew.

A book still may be readable after suffering water damage, but it no longer has any value as a collectible. A professional book restorer can mitigate some of the consequences of water damage, but the process is expensive and not perfect.

I know two people who had books damaged during the flooding spawned by the pre-Halloween meteorological witch's brew of a dying Pacific storm and a cold front charging into warm, wet air.

One woman had some books damaged by water when a creek behind her house got out of its banks and flooded an outdoor storeroom. Another acquaintance lost nearly two dozen books to a leaky roof during the recent torrential rains.

Twice in my life, leaky roofs damaged some books in my private collection.

Here are some bibliographic water safety points to keep in mind:

Of course, it doesn't necessarily take a flood or a rain shower for a book to suffer water damage. A spilled beverage can be bad news for any nearby book. Why take a chance? Keep water, juices, soft drinks, coffee, milk or booze away from your books. And if you like to read in the bathtub or by the beach, I wouldn't recommend a signed first edition of Mark Twain or any other expensive volume. Paperbacks are the best bet for tub or beach readers.

Water is the essence of life for all living things, but not for books. As William Dean Howells once observed, "The mortality of all inanimate things is terrible to me, but that of books most of all."


Two Texas Newspapermen
(October 16, 1998)

Houston went mildly crazy in the summer of 1928.

The Democratic National Convention was meeting there in a huge, hastily-constructed hall built of East Texas pine. The structure, like just about every other one in Houston, was not air conditioned. A thousand reporters descended on the city, and they had plenty to write about, from national politics to a local lynching. Will Rogers was in town. H.L. Mencken. And Amon Carter.

Carter was publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In a room in the Rice Hotel, with Mencken present, Carter drew a six-shooter and proceeded to expend 50 percent of its ammunition. The shots left three neat holes in the room's window screen and a bit more damage to the hotel across the street. By the time Texas Rangers reached the room, Carter had vanished, leaving the journalist from Baltimore to explain the incident.

Newspaper publishers are a more sedate lot these days. But can you name one?

In his heyday, Amon Carter had plenty of name recognition in Texas and across the nation. He was a friend of people like the cowboy columnist Rogers and not at all shy about picking up a telephone and cussing out the governor of Texas. Or wisecracking to the President of the United States.

Jerry Flemmons, who for years was a writer on the staff of the newspaper Carter built, has written two books about Texas newspapermen equally apt at blazing rhetoric or blazing sixguns: William Cowper Brann, who mortally wounded the man who mortally wounded him in a Waco shootout and Carter, who enlarged the ventilation system at the Rice Hotel.

Flemmons' book on Brann, "O dammit!: A Lexicon and a Lecture from William Cowper Brann, The Iconoclast" (Texas Tech University Press, 182 pages, $27.95) is new. His book on Carter, "Amon: The Texan Who Played Cowboy for America," (Texas Tech University Press, 336 pages, $31.95) was first published in 1978 but had been out of print for years. Flemmons has added new material for the Texas Tech edition.

Unlike Carter, Brann was not a native Texan, but he fit the stereotypical image. He did traditional newspaper work in Galveston, Houston, Austin and San Antonio before beginning publication of a monthly magazine, The Iconoclast.

The bombastic Iconoclast, published in Waco, soon claimed a national circulation of a quarter million. For 40 months, Brann wrote essays and snippets on everything from Baptists, one of his favorites topic/targets, to philosophy to politics.

The only thing that ended Brann's Iconoclast was what ended Brann: An assassin with a six shooter. Gunned down in downtown Waco on April Fool's Day, 1898, Brann at least managed to mortally wound his attacker. Both men died a few hours later. Brann's widow put out one more issue of the Iconoclast after her husband's death, but the publication was nothing without Brann's writing.

Flemmons' book on the Iconoclast (as fitting a description of the publisher as the publication) is an alphabetical selection of assorted excerpts from Brann's million-plus words -- collected after his death in a long out-of-print 12-volume set -- and a two-act play about Brann. His book is an entertaining read and will stand as an excellent source for anyone looking for a good quotation on topics varying from Texas newspapers to the Universe.

Unlike Brann, the other flamboyant newspaper personality Flemmons has written about died of natural causes. But Carter lives on as the personification of the mythical Texan, that larger than life character in a cowboy hat.

Carter used his newspaper for the benefit of Fort Worth and West Texas and he had fun while he was at it. And it's fun reading about him today.


Texas Broadcasting: First Fifty Years
(October 9, 1998)

Remember the cowbell?

From the late 1920s until 1970, Fort Worth radio station WBAP and Dallas' WFAA shared two AM frequencies. The stations alternated between two spots on the dial because one of the frequencies (800, which later was changed to 820) was a clear channel. That frequency could be broadcast on at 50,000 watts, which covered a lot of Texas and the nation.

When the stations switched frequencies, WBAP rang a cowbell. Later, when the technology was available, it played a recording of a cowbell. WFAA went with more Dallas-like chimes when its turn came to use the frequency.

All the particulars of this nationally-unique arrangement are explained in greater detail in "Texas Signs On: The Early Days of Radio and Television" by Richard Schroeder. Published by Texas A&m Press, the 247-page book sells for $29.95.

"Texas Signs On" is a long-overdue book on a significant aspect of Texas history, done just in time to take advantage of oral interviews of some of the surviving Texas radio-television pioneers.

The first use of radio in anything near the sense we now consider traditional came on Thanksgiving Day 1921, when those with crystal radio receivers were able to tune in on a stream of dots and dashes coming from radio station 5XB at A&M. The Morse Code was providing the first broadcast coverage of a University of Texas versus A&M football game.

In Waco, someone receiving the signal wrote down "T FP 8Y L" and ran to an open window to yell through a megaphone: "Texas forward pass; eight yard loss."

By 1922, radio stations in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Waco, Amarillo and a few other cities were broadcasting voice and music a few hours each day. The first broadcasters were amateurs who liked to tinker with radio equipment and the U.S. Military, which had stations in San Antonio that played music as well as transmitted military messages.

A radio station owner in Amarillo had his studio upstairs over the service station he also operated. When a customer drove up, he'd go sell him gas and the station would be off the air until he returned.

Amon Carter, legendary publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, had some fear that radio would eclipse newspapers. With that in mind, he figured it was better to own the menace than not, so his newspaper went into the radio broadcasting business.

Slowly, Texas and the rest of the nation was learning that radio was merely another way to make money and not a medium that would do away with newspapers.

Radio was only 26 years old in Texas when Carter opened the southwest's first television station, WBAP. The station went on the air the shortly before 7 p.m. on Sept. 28, 1948. The engineering staff was astonished when someone called and said they were picking up the signal as far away as Highland Park in Dallas. They hadn't thought it would carry that far.

"Tonight we're adding sight to sound," Carter told the few people in Dallas-Fort Worth (this was before someone had invented the term "Metroplex") who had TV sets. "I believe television's here to stay."

Twenty-six minutes into its inaugural broadcast, the TV station went dark. It was not the fault of any of the new broadcasting equipment, however. A traffic accident near the Star-Telegram's "Radio and Television Plant," as Carter had called it, had knocked down a utility pole.

By the early 1950s, most major Texas cities had at least one TV station. The big cities, of course, had one for each network, which back then was three.

When TV came to Austin, I remember my grandparents driving downtown so we could see what all the excitement was about. Appliance store owners kept sets on at night in their showroom windows on Congress Avenues for curious viewers they hoped to convert into customers. We stood on the sidewalk and watched in wonder, as did people in other cities all over Texas, and soon there was a set in our houses. In the spring and summer, the television was turned around facing a window so we and our neighbors could sit outside in the yard and watch.

"Texas Signs On" concentrates on the first half-century of Texas broadcasting, leaving nearly three decades of the story to some future writer. The first 50 years were the formative ones for the industry, though television has changed incredibly from the early 1970s.

A real strength of Schroeder's book is his use of anecdotes from the surviving Texas broadcasting pioneers. He interviewed 79 people for the book and collected stories which are both insightful and interesting.

The story Schroeder tells is not only fascinating cultural history, but an interesting case study of how we accept and handle new technology. Twenty or 30 years from now, middle-aged Texans probably will be recalling with nostalgia the first time they booted up a personal computer and got on the Internet. Their telling of it doubtless will seem as quaint as my memories of watching black-and-white television.


Texas Bird Guide for Children
(October 2, 1998)

The first thing we heard was its wings flapping.

Something with a wing span large enough to make a loud whooshing noise had landed in the big mesquite in front of the old Duval County ranch house.

Larry Hodge saw it first.

"Hey, Sally, come look at this," he yelled, calling his wife out on the porch. "Up there. It's not a greenjay."

A fat green parrot that looked like he was wearing a red hat sat on a branch regarding the three of us. The ranch we were on had been in Sally Victor's family for decades. She'd never seen a parrot on the place.

None of us would have ever expected to see a parrot where we were. The ranch near the small community of Realitos is 70 miles from the Rio Grande at Laredo and about the same distance from the Gulf of Mexico.

The bird seemed gregarious. It was even more so after Sally set out some bread for it. Later, she added to the offering with some cantaloupe.

The next morning, the parrot was gone, but as I sat in the brush on the opening day of the South Texas dove season, I occasionally heard a wolf whistle coming from a nearby tree.

On this particular morning, as shotgun blasts echoed across the brasada like distant thunder, the parrot probably was happy nature had given him bright green feathers. With so many armed bird watchers in the field, it was not a good day to be a gray, tan and white bird. A thick fog, however, was giving the dove something of an early advantage over hunters.

Back in Austin, I found in "Learn About Texas Birds," a children's book published by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and distributed by the University of Texas Press, that the big bird we'd seen in South Texas was probably a Red-crowned parrot of the order Psittaciformes, family Psittacidae -- parakeets and parrots. It probably came up from the semi-tropical country farther down the Rio Grande near Brownsville. If it had been someone's pet, it was a long, long way from home.

"Learn About Texas Birds" (52 pages, $7.95) is designed for children, with drawings to color, projects to build and games to play, but it's also an informative overview of bird life in Texas.

For instance, did you know that of the 900 bird species in the United States, 600 of them can be found in Texas? That's more than any other state. The reason, of course, is Texas' vast size and diverse geography -- from country suitable to parrots, to seagulls, or to eagles.

Caution: Trying to impart information to your children or grandchildren may be hazardous to your ego. When I offer some gem of knowledge to daughter Hallie, she sometimes replies, "I already know that, Daddy."

Recently, Hallie reversed roles and explained to me that the earth revolves around the sun, but that the moon revolves around the earth. Before I could get out a mimicry, "I already know that, Hallie," she said, "I'm a clever girl."

"Yes," I replied, "but do you know what modesty is?"

When she said no, she did not know what modesty meant, I explained that it is better to have someone else say you are clever rather than immodestly say so yourself.

"Okay," she said after thinking about that a moment, "am I a clever girl?"

"Learning About Texas Birds" will help raise your child's clever level. The book has a well-designed taxonomy chart to show how animals are identified, a discussion on the similarity between birds and dinosaurs (an area of definite interest for most kids) and basic information on the various aspects of birds, from their beak types to their feet.

If you want your children or grandchildren to grow up with an appreciation for the outdoors, giving them a copy of "Learn About Texas Birds" would be a clever idea.


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