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


Texas Travelguides
(September 25, 1998)

J. Frank Dobie used to say that every Texan has two home towns -- his own and San Antonio.

With the Alamo being the third most visited historic site in the United States, behind only the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell, it would seem that people all over the country feel the same way.

I've been a regular visitor to San Antonio since the mid-1950s, but I keep learning new things about the city that is now the nation's eighth largest.

Some for instances:

These tidbits come from three recently published or re-published books dealing with San Antonio.

Brand new is "San Antonio: The Story of an Enchanted City," by Frank W. Jennings. Published in hardback by the San Antonio Express-News, the 267-page book sells for $24.95.

Jennings' book is a well-organized, readable overview on a fascinating city.

Back in its second edition is "San Antonio on Foot," by Diane Capito and Mark Willis. Published by Texas Tech University Press, the 216-page book sells for $13.95 in softcover.

"San Antonio on Foot" is a detailed walking guide to the city, including a tour of its historic downtown cemeteries.

The final book in this San Antonio trilogy is the just-published fifth edition of the Texas Monthly Guidebook to San Antonio by Nancy Haston Foster. The 264-page trade paperback from Gulf Publishing Co. sells for $16.95.

First published in 1983 when Texas Monthly magazine had a book publishing operation, the updated Guidebook is still the best reference source to have if you're planning on visiting the Alamo City. It covers everything from places to eat to community clubs and hobby groups, including a group of folks formed to support the Witte Museum, the Texas Camel Corps.

San Antonio is Texas' second largest city, have surpassed Dallas in the 1990 census. (Dallas is still a larger metropolitan area.)

Rose-Mary Rumbley has written an interesting book on Big D called "Dallas, Too: Stories I'm Telling Again, Because I Want To Hear Them Myself!" Published by Eakin Press, the 354-page hardback sells for $27.95.

As its title suggests, this book is a readable collection of stories about Dallas, from longtime sheriff Bill Decker to inside information on Big Tex, the big-voiced, towering icon of the State Fair of Texas.

Many people in other states and nations see Texas as a land of wide open spaces, but as these books on two of the state's three biggest urban areas show, there's more to Texas than tumbleweeds and oil pumps.


Early Military Scouting Diaries
(September 18, 1998)

It even took John Meadows, the man who owns the ranch, a moment or two to find it.

Meadows walked around on the edge of the mountain top, scanning the rugged country, then pointed: "Here it is."

Soon we were picking our way down the side of the elevation, a feature more than a hill but no towering peak, along the old Chihuahua Trail, later known as the Government Road. But if I hadn't known I was on a road, I would have sworn I was merely making my way down the rocky slope of the mountain.

It was hard to imagine coming down that road in a wagon or even on a mule. The only indication of improvement along the route were various places where rocks had obviously been piled to fill a gap.

Two miles below us, a large U.S. flag flew from a tall white staff in the midst of the ruins of old Fort Lancaster. That flag must have been a welcome sight to travelers along this road. To them it meant protection from hostile Indians and, equally important in this dry country, a place to get water.

Thousands of Western-bound travelers used this road before railroads and better routes made it obsolete. One of those whose footprints we were following in the figurative sense was John Bigelow.

As a young lieutenant fresh out of West Point, Bigelow and a troop of cavalry may have ridden down this hill along the Government Road as he and a company of black Buffalo Soldiers moved from Fort Duncan on the Rio Grande to Fort Stockton.

After crossing the Pecos, Bigelow reached Fort Lancaster, abandoned since the beginning of the Civil War, and spent the night there in a tent. His captain posted a guard in case Indians showed up, but the only threat to the small command turned out to be a dog that bit one of the men.

Bigelow's account of his overnight stay at old Fort Lancaster, and many other experiences as a horseback officer in West Texas, was recorded in a diary that is the basis of an interesting book from Texas Western Press, "Frontier Cavalryman: Lieutenant John Bigelow With the Buffalo Soldiers in Texas." Marcos E. Kinevan, a retired Air Force brigadier general, wove an interpretive text around Bigelow's account of military life in Texas in the late 1870s. The 338-page book is available at $35.00.

Another memoir-minded officer on the Texas frontier was Abner Doubleday. Doubleday, an 1844 West Point graduate, served in the Mexican War. He was stationed in Texas during the 1850s and again in the 1870s. After retiring from the Army in 1873, he wrote his recollections. Finally, more than a century later, Doubleday's experiences have been published as "My Life in the Old Army: The Reminiscences of Abner Doubleday." Joseph E. Chance, a math professor at the University of Texas-Pan American at Edinburg, edited and annotated Doubleday's work. Published by Texas Christian University Press, the 403-page book sells for $27.95.

Doubleday often gets the credit for inventing baseball while stationed in Texas, but if he did, his memoir does not mention it. Even if he is not the father of baseball, his memoirs -- well-edited by Chance -- are a home-run for anyone interested in Texas military history.

The Texas forts mentioned by Bigelow and Doubleday are in various stages of preservation today, but most of them are on public property and open to visitors. A guidebook from the University of North Texas Press, "Along the Texas Forts Trail," will be helpful to anyone interested in seeing these historic sites. Written by B.W. Aston and Donathan Taylor, the 166-page paperback sells for $10.95.

Decades before Bigelow and Doubleday did tours of duty in Texas, an Army major cut across the area later known as the Panhandle during an expedition in 1820 -- a time when Texas still was a Spanish possession. The trek is chronicled in "Retracing Major Stephen H. Long's 1820 Expedition: The Itinerary and Botany," by George J. Goodman and Cheryl A. Lawson. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, the 366-page books is available at $38.50.

Reading any of these books will give you new appreciation of many of the things we take for granted, particularly good food, good water, good health care, and good roads.


Recording Family Histories
(September 11, 1998)

I walked into the small town library hopeful, though not expecting to find a huge amount of useful information on the pioneer Texan I was interested in.

The person whose trail I was trying to follow had been dead since 1921, but I didn't know the day or month or much else about the last half of his life. If I could at least find his death date, I could find a newspaper obituary. Maybe, I thought, the library had a file on the person I was trying to learn more about, or knew of some reference to his family in a county history.

I gave the librarian the name of the man whose story I was researching. She entered his name in the computer terminal on her desk and said that the library did have a couple of titles I might want to look over.

Soon she handed me two homemade family histories, one a lengthy typescript, the other a spiral-bound photocopy of a typescript. Four hours later, I left the library with 74 photocopies and enough information to bring a colorful old Texas Ranger back to life -- in the literary sense.

More than 20 years ago, a descendant of this man clearly had worked quite hard to preserve his family's history. His work was not commercially publishable, but it was a treasure trove of information.

Someone needs to start a movement to recognize family researchers with National Genealogists Day. While their motive may be nothing more than family pride, those who delve into their family's story and preserve what they learn are owed a great debt by historians.

If you're thinking about exploring your family's past, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • There's more to life than birth and death. In family histories, dates of birth and death are obviously important, but it's that hyphen -- what happens in a person's life between their birth and death -- that is of the most value to future generations. Approach a person's life as a story to be told, not a fill-in-the-blank endeavor.
  • Save grass roots history while the grass is green. Even if you don't have time to start digging at a library, tape record or videotape all the greats and grands in your family while they're still around to recollect how things used to be. Failing that, at least write down their stories. People die, but stories live on.
  • Label and date those old family photographs. See above. Memories fade faster than family snapshots. An old portrait with no name attached is something of a lost soul, doomed to eternal anonymity.
  • Copy and transcribe old handwritten family letters, being careful to retain original spelling and punctuation. A letter is a window into the writer's mind and the events of the time.
  • Don't overlook the history of things. Where did that old rifle come from? Who used to own that old marble top table?
  • Document your sources. A colorful family anecdote is much more valuable if its origin is provided. If a particular story came from a published source, mention that. If the story was merely one in the exhaustive oral repertoire of Grandpa Jones, say so.
  • Tell your family's story with clarity. The best way to do that is to follow a logical order. The classic metaphor of genealogy is the family tree, but leaves fall and branches intertwine. Following chronological order is a basic structure.
  • Make your family history as user-friendly as possible. A table of contents and index are much appreciated by other researchers.
  • A summary, either in the form of an introduction or epilogue, is highly useful. For example: "The Jones family traces its Texas roots back to 1830, when Blah-Blah Jones came from Tennessee to settle in Gonzales. Though the old family homestead is still in the hands of descendants, hundreds of other descendants live all across Texas."
  • Use the Internet. An incredible amount of information is out there for the taking, if you know how to navigate the World Wide Web.
  • Get professional help. Major Texas research libraries keep a list of people ready to help in family research projects on a fee basis. If you think your family's story is interesting enough for a book, there are free-lance consultants who can take your work from rough draft to published book.
  • If you aren't interested in publishing your work, give photocopies to your library for inclusion in its genealogical collection. Someday someone will appreciate what you have done.


Creative? Cookbook
(September 4, 1998)

The best Twilight Zone episode ever filmed is about what happens when a huge flying saucer comes to Earth.

With great flourish, the creepy-looking visitors present a big book to the inhabitants of this planet. The friendly aliens then offer to take all interested parties off to a better world.

Meanwhile, as thousands queue up to depart a troubled world locked in Cold War, American scientists are working feverishly to decipher the big book from the aliens. Its title, if I remember correctly, is rather noble -- "To Serve Man."

Finally, the code is broken. As the spaceship is about to depart for another galaxy, with people lined up for the flight like so many cattle, a desperate scientist rushes to the scene.

"It's a cookbook!" the code-breaker shouts. Unfortunately, it's too late for mankind, which is about to take one giant step into the inter-galactic commodities market.

When I received a copy of a new book from Texas A&M University Press recently, I noted its title was "Stirring Prose." Seeing a picture of an old manual typewriter on the cover and the words "Texas Authors" in the subtitle, I jumped to the conclusion that "Stirring Prose" was a book about Texas writers. Then I looked closer. With no less horror than Rod Serling's scientist in that wonderful black and white Twilight Zone episode, I realized . . . It's a cookbook!

This is not an Aggie joke. One of the most respected academic presses in the country has published a book containing the favorite recipes of 39 Texas authors.

The book, if you want to read on, is "Stirring Prose: Cooking With Texas Authors" by Deborah Douglas. The 224-page book sells for $19.95.

Don't get me wrong. I am not opposed to cookbooks (in their place) and I certainly am not anti-eating. In fact, I don't miss many meals. I'm not a vegetarian and most of the time I'm not particularly picky about calories. But a gimmicky cookbook from a serious publisher seems about as appropriate as a hearty red Italian table wine served with a delicate chilled crabmeat salad.

Is anyone really curious to know what Kinky Friedman or Molly Ivins regards as good food? Call me old fashioned, but I think a writer should be appreciated for his or her writing, not their recipes. Unless, of course, they have chosen to serve man by writing a cookbook.

My beef with this cookbook is that it puts writers on par with other media "personalities," from jocks to talk show hosts to TV sitcom stars. That said, though I think this book is silly, it does have some charmingly interesting material, including some dishes I wouldn't mind trying.

I haven't tested any of the recipes in "Stirring Prose" -- I'll leave that to the food editors -- but Douglas' writing is nicely seasoned with wit. I particularly liked, and readily identified with, her term for author book signings: book sittings. Her point, well taken, is that books seldom fly out the door at book signings. A writer spends more time sitting and talking than signing and selling.

Douglas, an M.D. whose day job is practicing pathology at a San Antonio hospital, says in her introduction that she at first thought about writing something of a "Who's Who" of Texas writers, but concluded that a cookbook would be more reader- friendly. While I disagree with her diagnosis, Douglas has written some thoughtful and revealing mini-portraits of Texas writers.

Following each portrait is a sometimes incomplete listing of the author's books, a brief bit of writing from the chosen author, and finally, their recipe.

Though writers like John Graves, A.C. Greene, Elmer Kelton and Mary Willis Walker, went along with Douglas' request for a recipe, she says quite a few others either declined or didn't even bother to answer her letter.

Left out of the book for some reason was Mason outdoor writer Larry Hodge, who makes scratch biscuits nearly as well as my grandmother used to. A couple of patties of venison sausage trailed by a pair of those biscuits covered with molasses is a fine way to start the morning in a hunting camp.

I was not invited to submit a recipe for the book, but just to get in the spirit of things (no sour grapes here), I'd like to share my old family recipe (I'm not making this up) for Pork and Beans sandwich:

  • 1 small can Pork and Beans
  • 1 loaf white bread
  • 1 jar old-fashioned, full-calorie Mayonnaise

Take two pieces of white bread and spread thickly with Mayonnaise. Open can of beans and ladle a tablespoon or two on one piece of the bread. Place bread slices together. Enjoy.

"Stirring Prose" offers some creative dishes from 39 creative people, but as a published work, it is Book Lite.


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