God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State (2 page)

WRITERS HAVE BEEN
sizing up Texas from its earliest days, usually harshly. Frederick Law Olmsted, a journalist before he became the designer of New York’s Central Park, rode through in 1854. “Horses and wives were of as little account as umbrellas in more advanced states,” he noted. In 1939, Edna Ferber arrived on a prospecting trip that led to her novel
Giant
. That book, finally published in 1952, was a sensation. It popularized the image of Texas millionaires as greedy but colorful provincials, whose fortunes were built largely on luck rather than hard work or intelligence. That there was truth in this summation was part of the sting. When the
New Yorker
writer John Bainbridge passed through the state in 1961, gathering material for his book
The Super-Americans,
he found Texans still reeling from what he called ednaferberism. “Few documents since the Emancipation Proclamation have stirred as much commotion,” Bainbridge observed; however, he also noticed that the movie had just come out, and it was booked on nearly every screen in the state. In the movie version, Rock Hudson plays the cattle rancher with a spread the size of several states; James Dean is the roughneck, who rises from nothing to build a stupendous fortune; and Elizabeth Taylor is the civilizing Easterner, who acknowledges the exploitation of the Mexicans who do all the labor but fail to reap the profits. It’s been three quarters of a century since
Giant
first appeared on bookshelves, but the archetypes that Ferber codified still color the perceptions of Texans by both outsiders and Texans themselves.
Bainbridge observed that the condescension of non-Texans toward the state echoes the traditional Old World stance toward the New. “The faults of Texas, as they are recorded by most visitors, are scarcely unfamiliar, for they are the same ones that Europeans have been taxing us with for some three hundred years: boastfulness, cultural underdevelopment, materialism, and all the rest,” Bainbridge wrote. He diagnosed the popular disdain for Texas as a combination of “hostility born of envy” and “resentment born of nostalgia.” He added: “Texas is a mirror in which Americans see themselves reflected, not life-sized but, as in a distorting mirror, bigger than life. They are not pleased by the image.”

When Bainbridge visited, Texas was in the backseat of the national consciousness, a marginal influence despite its swelling oil wealth and sui generis political culture. By the time Gail Collins,
The
New York Times
’s op-ed columnist, arrived to research her 2012 manifesto,
As Texas Goes…How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda,
the accumulation of economic and political power meant that Texas now had a hand on the steering wheel. Alarm had set in. “Texas
runs everything
,” Collins wrote, expressing a typical liberal complaint. “Why, then, is it so cranky?”

Steve and I have talked over the question of whether Texas is responsible for fomenting the darker political culture that has crept over our country, which is the charge that outsiders like Collins often make, citing as evidence Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, George W. Bush and Iraq, Tom DeLay and redistricting, Ted Cruz and the Tea Party—an impressive bill of particulars that has contributed to the national malaise. Steve takes the position that Texas is simply a part of the mainstream. Its influence may seem disproportionate, but it’s a huge state and it reflects trends that are under way all across the country. “If you visualize America as a sailing ship, Texas is like the hold,” he says. “When the cargo shifts, it’s bound to affect the trajectory of the vessel.”

I’m less forgiving. I think Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation. Because Texas is a part of almost everything in modern America—the South, the West, the Plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between the rural areas and the cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, Kansas and Louisiana more dysfunctional, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future.

WE DECIDED TO
begin our ride at the farthest of the five missions—San Francisco de la Espada, established in 1731. From there it was about thirteen miles to the oldest mission, the Alamo, in downtown San Antonio.
Texas has had a lot of blood spilled on its soil, and although the term “terrorism” wasn’t in coinage during the settlement of the state, people on all sides understood the stakes. Torture, scalping, beheading, indiscriminate and imaginative murders were the nature of the conflict between the native world and the European colonizers. The idea of the missions was to provide sanctuary for the Coahuiltecan Indians, where they could be Christianized and turned into farmers and artisans. “The point was to make them as much like Spaniards as possible,” Steve says. Unfortunately for the Coahuiltecans, they were caught in a crossfire between the Spaniards and the Apaches, as well as the Comanches, who ruled the savage plains. “It was like modern-day Syria,” Steve observed.

A wedding was going on in the little Espada chapel, so Steve and I wandered over to an outbuilding where an amateur baseball league was selling barbecue plates. We ate on a bench in a field of purple clover beside the ancient granary and listened to the nuptial music. A waft of incense floated from the tiny sanctuary, and the sun suddenly broke through. Already in February we could feel the breath of July.

Presently, the bride and groom emerged, and as the bells pealed they stood for photographs in front of the Moorish arch of the doorway. History leaves such interesting traces of itself—subtle, as Steve would have it—and here was a remnant of the Alhambra. We talked about how the Spanish colonization of America was an outgrowth of the Inquisition and the ousting of the Moors. After they captured Granada in 1492, the Spanish Catholics took their holy war to the New World. They were rather late in arriving in Texas. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked near Galveston Island in 1528. The conquistadors brought with them the entire catalog of European pestilence—bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, influenza—producing one of history’s greatest demographic disasters. “Half the natives died of a disease of the bowels and blamed us,” Cabeza de Vaca complained. The Indians who rescued the stranded Spaniard demanded that he become their medicine man; thus the first European in Texas found himself attempting to cure the very infections he had caused. Generations later, when Europeans began coming to Texas to stay, the original, thickly settled Indian country had been reduced to the wide-open spaces that greeted the Spanish friars. Their missions are about the oldest material objects in Texas, aside from arrowheads and dinosaur bones.

As we were finishing lunch, I spotted another bride waiting beside the ruined walls; a tall black photographer with a red Mohawk was snapping photos of her, while her plump Mexican mother held her train. Steve and I took a peek inside the chapel, then decided it was time to mount up and ride.

We pedaled along a paved trail beside the river—or what used to be the river before it was channelized following a series of floods in the first half of the twentieth century. In the last two decades, however, there has been a heroic attempt to return life to this waterway. Engineers installed artificial shoals and falls; native plantings now line the shoreline, disguising the reinforcements, so that the river, while no longer natural, has at least become naturalistic. Cormorants perch on the artfully positioned boulders, hanging their wings, like Dracula’s cape, out to dry. We passed a number of small farmhouses, where roosters called to us, along with the occasional fussy peacock. These birds, with their incessant screeching, are among the most annoying immigrants to the state. A rancher friend of mine claims that peacocks were first brought to Texas because they were said to be excellent snake eaters. They’ve become a plague in some city neighborhoods. The best way to silence them, folks have found, is to station a mirror nearby, so that the males spend their time gaping at their own reflection.

The peacock invasion reminded me of the collapse of the great emu bubble of the 1990s, when breeding pairs of the five-foot-tall Australian flightless bird were selling for $50,000 in Texas. Emu oil was promoted as a treatment for cancer and arthritis and was even said to repel mosquitoes. Emu steak was on the menu. Soon more than half a million emus were grazing on Texas ranchland. Ostriches joined the big-bird craze. Then the bubble popped, and the formerly prized emus turned into unwanted tenants that were sold at auction for about two bucks apiece, or simply shooed out the open gate. Some counties had to hire emu wranglers to recapture the fast and notoriously obstinate birds. There are still colonies of feral emus roaming the state.

Texas has practically no laws regulating exotic animals. After a herd of nilgai antelope was released on the King Ranch in 1930, every rancher felt compelled to own a few zebras, or camels, kangaroos, gazelles, maybe a rhinoceros. Hunters decided to breed Russian boars with the feral hogs that are a remnant of the Spanish colonization, and now we’ve got more than two million of these beasts, each weighing twice as much as a white-tailed deer, with tusks like bayonets, tearing up fences and pastureland and mowing down crops, even eating the seed corn out of the ground before it sprouts. They can run twenty-five miles per hour and smell odors seven miles away.

But at least they’re not tigers. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are more tigers living in captivity in Texas than the three thousand that are thought to be living in the wild. Some are kept as pets in backyards. During the floods in East Texas in 2016, a tiger escaped in Conroe still wearing its collar and leash. When my wife, Roberta, was teaching kindergarten, she would go to a state teacher supply center to get classroom materials, and one of the options was to check out a few Madagascar hissing cockroaches to amuse the children. That’s all we need.

WHAT I KNOW
about Steve:
He was born Michael Stephen McLaughlin, but his father, a fighter pilot who had won the Distinguished Flying Cross in the Second World War, died in a crash six months before he was born. Steve’s name was changed when his mother remarried, so he became Stephen Michael Harrigan. Or else Michael Stephen Harrigan. It’s one way on his driver’s license and the other on his passport. He’s not sure himself what his legal name is.

Steve has always been set in his ways. When he was a boy, a pretty girl gave him a rock, and he kept it in his pocket for two years. One time when we were on another bike ride, Steve confessed that he has difficulty changing gears because his personality is so inflexible.

He’s a serial sneezer—I have counted up to fourteen in a row—and he has impressive dexterity, being able to snap all his fingers, and peel an orange with a spoon. He is a somnambulist, who occasionally walks in his sleep, and once even showered and dressed without waking up. He has been known to latch his hotel room door to keep himself from wandering into the hallway in his underwear.

He fathered three adorable daughters and evidently has no Y chromosomes.

He suffers from a crippling civility and is constitutionally unable to enter a door before anyone else. His niceness sometimes gets him into trouble, but it goes along with his chivalry. Once he saw a woman being manhandled on the street and he sprung to her defense, whereupon her boyfriend beat him up while she told him to mind his own business.

He goes to the movies at least twice a week, even those known to be awful, which he will sometimes defend because “it succeeds on its own terms” or some such inarguable formulation. He hates clowns and mimes, which scream phoniness to him, but he’s soft on pests, like rats and snakes, because they can’t help being what they are.

Nothing depresses him like good news. He’s always worried about money, but tell him he’s won the lottery and he’ll sink into a funk, imagining all the things that will inevitably go wrong. He claims he’s not a pessimist; he’s just anxious about being taken in by dreamy illusions. When we got our first movie contract, he glumly observed, “This could be the worst thing that ever happened to us.”

Steve still has his old interior lineman frame, but he’s bald and his beard is going white. In fashion, he inclines toward survivalist gear. He divides the world into those who are ready to flee into the hills on a moment’s notice and those who are liable to find themselves, like Pierre in
War and Peace,
trapped on the field of battle in a swallowtail coat—to Steve, the most frightening passage in all of literature.

As it happens, Steve and I were born in the same hospital in Oklahoma City, and lived at the same time in Abilene, Texas. Steve’s stepfather was an oilman, which brought his family to Texas. We didn’t meet until I moved to Austin in 1980 to work for
Texas Monthly
magazine, where Steve was a staff writer. Living such parallel lives, we were destined to get together eventually.

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