Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

On being a stranger in a strange part of Texas

When it comes to Central Texas, I am sort of a stranger in a strange land. I grew up in East Texas and have deep genealogical roots in North and East Texas. I was born in San Marcos, which is halfway between Austin and San Antonio, but still…Central Texas and the Hill Country are not really where I am from.

I got plopped here in CenTex by a series of negative choices that turned out to be the best in my life. I have two beautiful twin daughters and a wonderful husband because I ended up here. I worked for the U.S. Army at Fort Hood for four years and am now at Central Counties Center for Mental Health and Mental Retardation Services. This current job requires me to mix quite a bit with the fine folks of Bell, Coryell, Hamilton, Lampasas, and Milam Counties.

I’m up to my eyeballs in CenTex.

How is all this different than East Texas? To be honest, East Texas is more like Louisiana. I grew up in the last bastion of the Old South in the midst of a lot of sand, pine trees, the occasional swamp, Cajun music and food, and “Who are your mama’s people?” People are perfectly welcoming and warm, but in East Texas, if your parents’ families didn’t settle in the area in the middle of the 19th century when fruit farming was the main industry prior to Dad Joiner and the Daisy Bradford #3, you will never be a part of the social scene, and certainly not the “Texas” (read: TYLER) Rose Festival. My mother’s people on her father’s side moved to Smith County around 1900 from Carthage in Panola County. Prior to that, they populated Louisiana and Alabama…but not Smith County, Texas. So my mother’s people are “new” to Tyler via Arp, Texas. My mother was born in Kansas City, MO. That, to East Texans, is almost unspeakable. There’s a dash of Yankee in my bloodline which makes me an untouchable in the Tyler caste system.

CenTex differs in that, besides sitting at the gateway to the Texas Hill Country, nowadays most people living and working there are from other parts of Texas, if not the world. Interstate 35’s construction bomb crater and nearby Fort Hood have brought in “foreigners,” and Temple has begun to show it. Restaurants are more upscale and there are more chain eateries now. Craft beer joints, particularly those featuring Texas craft beers, have sprung up in town. Downtown Temple has an excellent Irish pub, and the area is beginning to show signs of revitalization, not to mention the residential area building boom happening west of I-35. Ten years ago, when I moved to the area, people gave outsiders the stink-eye for being from elsewhere, unless those outsiders were associated with the military. Now, nobody here cares about the pinch of Midwesterner spice (oxymoron) in my pedigree. They’re pretty friendly with the Texans who are non-Temple-ites. Or Templonians. Or Templars. Or whatever we’re called. I’ve now lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in the world. That does not make me a native “Templar,” but it does make me a familiar face.

Temple/Belton, where I reside, has much more in common with North Texas regarding topography. Our black dirt is the same ankle-sucking, baby chicken-eating goo that Tarrant and Dallas Counties have. When Temple was in its infancy, its nickname was “Tanglefoot,” because people got stuck just walking down the unpaved streets after a good rain. The site was called Temple Junction by the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway in honor of Bernard Moore Temple, chief engineer of the railroad. I read somewhere that one proposed name for Temple was “Prairie Queen.” I chuckled at the thought of moving here and being called a “Prairie Queenian” as a resident.

The thing that gets me about Temple, and what it has in common with Tyler and the smaller towns and cities of Tarrant, Dallas, Ellis, Hill, McLennan, and Falls counties is that occasionally I see a rancher with his cutting horse and a couple of cows in a stock trailer headed to the sale barn or another pasture on my drive home from work in the afternoons. For all the progress and changes in population demographics, and no matter what part of Texas, there is that iconic cowboy of legend in his pickup truck hauling his horse and some beef bovines and still doing his job as generations have done before him. Seeing that gives me a sense of comfort in that, no matter how the world has changed around us, the icons of Texas and Texans remain…and I’m home here no matter where I live.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Chili: the official dish of Texas

As the weather turns cooler, Texas thoughts turn to chili.

Actually, chili is always on the minds of Texans regardless of the temperature. It is, after all, the official dish of the state of Texas.

Surprised? What? Did you think it was barbecue? Tex-Mex? No way. It’s chili, hands down.

Will Rogers called chili a “bowl of blessedness” which gets him forgiven for being born in Oklahoma. True Texans know that chili is NOT made with beans. Beans, my friend, are for Yankees. That little nugget of truth was even sung about by Ken Finlay in his song If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know That Chili Has No Beans.

“You burn some mesquite and when the coals get hot, you bunk up some meat and you throw it on a pot.

“While some chile pods and garlic and comino and stuff, then you add a little salt till there’s just enough.

“You can throw in some onions to make it smell good.

“You can even add tomatoes, if you feel like you should.

“But if you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans.

“If you know beans about chili, you know it didn’t come from Mexico.

“Chili was God’s gift to Texas, or maybe it came from down below.

“And chili doesn’t go with macaroni, and (darned) Yankees don’t go with chili queens; and if you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans.”

Chili and Texas are one. They are inseparable. But not all chili is from Texas.

Ohio, it seems, is also home to a kind of chili.

Years ago, I was in Cincinnati shooting with the fire department for a training video company for which I worked at the time. The firefighters knew I was not just from Texas; I was a 6th generation Texan. So they wanted to take me out for true chili. We went to Skyline Chili, and I made the mistake of complimenting them on their fine spaghetti sauce. Then I asked when I got to sample the chili.


I was roundly and soundly educated on the difference between Texas chili and Cincinnati chili.

In my recent chili research, I learned from that Cincinnati chili was created by a Macedonian immigrant, Tom Kiradjieff. He started a Greek restaurant there in 1922, but no one knew anything about Greek food back then. So he created a kind of “chili” made with Greek spices. His creation included spaghetti, chopped onion, red kidney beans and shredded yellow cheese. He served it with oyster crackers and a side of hot dogs served with more shredded cheese.

It’s fine stuff, but I doubt it’s ever had a song written about it. If you know differently, please let me know.

Let’s get back to Texas chili.

The red stuff is so revered by Texans that there are a multitude of chili cook-offs year-round in Texas. I’ve even been a part of a chili cook-off team. We made what we called Cow Chip Chili. I can’t repeat our slogan. It’s disgusting. But the chili was five-star excellent. To this day, I only know part of the recipe. We all only had parts. Only our team captain knew all the ingredients. And, no, I won’t reveal even my miniscule part. That would violate the Texas Chili Code of Ethics.

Chili cook-off teams are part culinary genius and rabid silliness. Teams are judged on the quality of the product and the craziness of costumes, presentation and on theatrical sketches that border on bad Vaudeville routines. The Cow Chip Chili team was made up of otherwise “normal” people who dressed up as cowboys (and one cowgirl, thank you very much) and engaged in gunfights about six times a day throughout the event.

I knew of one team out of Houston that had a contact at NASA. Their chili cooker was sided with tiles from the Space Shuttle for insulation. Yes. Really.

That just goes to show that in Texas, chili is serious business.

The granddaddy of all chili cook-offs is the Terlingua International Chili Championship sponsored by the Chili Appreciation Society International, Inc. If you don’t believe me, visit and see for yourself.

Each year on the first Saturday of November CASI holds the ultimate celebration of chili at Rancho CASI de los Chisos in Terlingua. Rancho CASI is located on the north side of Highway 170, eleven miles west of Study Butte and 7 miles east of Lajitas.

The four-day celebration begins each year on Wednesday before the big weekend, and culminates on Saturday with the Terlingua International Chili Championship. It's a Texas tradition of epic proportion - complete with an annual proclamation from the Governor declaring “Chili Appreciation Society International Day” in Texas.

So while Tex-Mex cooking and barbecue certainly are staples of the Texas diet, no other dish holds the same almost religion-status as does Texas chili. I once asked my father what sealed the deal for him proposing to my mother. After reciting the long list of reasons he loved her, he paused reverently and whispered, “Her chili was better than my mother’s.”

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Mockingbirds are Texas symbols, musical composers, fighter pilots

The mockingbird (the northern mockingbird, that is) is the state bird of Texas.

They’re also the fiercest fighter pilots I know.

Walking into III Corps Headquarters at Fort Hood one morning back when I worked for the U.S. Army, I witnessed one going after a young captain with a vengeance. Apparently, the bird had a nest nearby and that captain got a little close for the mama bird’s comfort. She wasted no time letting him know.

With apologies to the officer, I have to say…y’all…it was funny.

Mockingbirds are fearless. They don’t care who you are or where you came from, if you get on their turf, they’re gonna defend it and try to take you out in the process.

Every spring, I perform at a renaissance festival at which there’s a bird of prey show. Every spring, I watch the Harris hawk get pestered by one very brazen little mockingbird. She won’t go after the falcons; she’s no dummy. But she’ll take on the hawks. That’s courage.

I’ve got a mockingbird in my yard who strafes my cat every time there’s a new brood. Salome’ likes to roll over on her back and play dead, just waiting for one to get close enough for her to grab. She’s gotten her furry belly pecked a time or two for her trouble. If you’ve not witnessed a cat and a mockingbird go toe to toe, grab a class of iced tea and pull up a chair on your porch; you’re in for a real show. The bird-to-cat/cat-to-bird chittering and cussing alone is high entertainment.

My father, ever the conservationist, often found baby mockingbirds that had fallen out of their nests. He’d get a ladder, climb up and put the baby back, usually with the mama bird trying to take out his hairline.

Mockingbirds are songbirds and they warble a lovely tune, albeit not entirely of their own composition; hence the epithet “mocking.” The birds mimic the songs of other songbirds and fashion them into a medley. Each imitation is repeated about three times before the next tune starts. Quite a few birds have a repertoire of up to 30 songs. Not even most Nashville country and western artists can boast that record.

It also has been known to mimic insects, frogs and the occasional mechanical noise.

Creativity knows no boundaries.

The mockingbird isn’t terribly flashy in its appearance, though it is rather pretty. Ol’ mimus polyglottos, as the avian is known to bird biologists, is about ten inches long, has light gray-brown plumage and a pale underbelly. The wings and long tail are darker. And there is a look in the bird’s eyes that says, “bring it on.”

The speculation about the bird being adopted as a state symbol in 1927 is that its song is the most beautiful of all songbird tunes. I think it’s the bird’s courage. As I said earlier, this is a bird willing to take on other creatures more than twice its size. And it’s a bird well known to our fellow Southerners; it’s the state bird for Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. Southern writer, Harper Lee, wrote one of the most important literary works of the 20th Century dealing with racism, To Kill a Mockingbird, which eventually became a film. In the movie, Atticus Finch explains to his children the responsibility of owning a gun:

“I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he'd rather I'd shoot at tin cans in the backyard,” Finch said. “But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted - if I could hit 'em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

“Why?” Jem, his son, asked.

“Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy,” Finch replied. “They don't eat people's gardens, don't nest in the corncrib, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”

Students of the book have said the mockingbird represents all that is beautiful, since it’s a songbird, but I think that’s selling the critter a little short.

I think the bird also represents what it means to stand up against the impossible. Like the mockingbird, Finch, defense attorney for a man accused of a crime he did not commit, stands up to a threat much larger than himself: an angry mob outside the jail in which Finch’s client, Tom Robinson, is held. In the courtroom and the street, he stands up against intolerance and stupidity, in spite of the massive loss that follows. He’s outweighed and outnumbered…and yet, he fights for Tom Robinson because it’s the right thing to do.

Lee never tried to explain or interpret her story. She once said of the book, “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct…that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

And all Americans.

Not a bad reputation—or heritage--for one feisty little bird to have.

Friday, August 22, 2014

BBQ is not only a Texas tradition, it’s a family tradition

Texas and barbecue are considered synonymous by many. Barbecue is, however, only one of the dishes considered traditionally Texan and it lags behind the king: chili.

That being said, I am going to address barbecue because I am constantly asked, “Hey Janna. You’re a Texan. Where do I go for great barbecue?”

My response almost always is, “Memphis.”

I hate barbecue.

There. I said it. I can’t stand the stuff. I think it tastes like shoe leather slathered in rancid ketchup. When it comes to barbecue, I become a high-maintenance princess and I whine. When asked where I want to go for lunch or dinner, I answer, “Anything BUT barbecue.”

I should turn in my Texas passport.

Truthfully, my taste buds prefer haute cuisine. I’m all about home cooking, but if you chuck words and phrases at me like “demi glace” and “reduction sauce,” you will have my full attention. But barbecue? Just the mention of it makes me throw up in my mouth a little.

My hatred of barbecue stems from the fact that there is so much bad barbecue out there, so I should probably say that I hate BAD barbecue. I have had great barbecue too and I did enjoy it.

Texas Monthly, that yankee-run rag in Austin that touts itself as the National Magazine of Texas, runs a list of top-rated barbecue joints every year. And almost every year, one joint appears in the list: Casstevens Cash & Carry in Lillian.

I am writing about Casstevens Cash & Carry because my cousin, Harold Dan, once owned and ran it. Casstevens is my maiden name. If you meet a Casstevens in Texas, yes, we are related and proudly so. Doesn’t matter how; just know that we are and that’s all you need to know.

I have been blessed to eat Harold Dan’s BBQ and it is everything that New York-inspired publication says it is. Thanks to Harold Dan, I can still call myself a Texan.

Now I must tell you this before we go any further: if you see a barbecue joint with “barbecue” in the name, the food is terrible. The fewer the letters in the name, the better the ‘cue. So it is with Casstevens Cash & Carry. The sign announcing the fare served reads “BBQ” as it should.

I am not endorsing Casstevens Cash & Carry. I am simply stating my experience with the place and bragging about my family. This is Texas; it’s what we do. And you are reading this column for my slanted, biased, Lone Star-centric musings. You have been warned.

I had the pleasure of CC&C’s ‘cue 13 years ago at a family reunion. Harold Dan catered. I gagged silently at the thought of eating barbecue, but because Harold Dan is family, I ate the stuff. After all, blood is thicker than barbecue sauce. I was converted. I became a fan of barbecue. Well, sort of. I only eat GOOD barbecue or “BBQ,” if you will, and CC&C’s more than qualifies.

I spoke on the phone with Angela Ashley, an employee of CC&C. She told me that the family no longer owns the business, but that we’re still involved. Harold Dan is at the store every day and still dispensing ‘cue advice. He is, in uppity business terms, a “‘cue consultant” now, as he should be.

If you don’t mind making the drive, CC&C is located at 11025 E. FM 917, Lillian, TX 76061. Call 817-790-2545 if you get lost and to make sure they are open when you go to visit.

To be fair, I must mention other BBQ enterprises around the state. I am told by my Texas compatriots and friends that Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano is excellent, though the name makes it suspect. So is Snow’s BBQ in Lexington and Wild Blue BBQ in Los Fresnos. I mention those two because, BBQ is in the name and we all know what that means.

The so-called National Magazine of Texas also promotes some who have all the variations of the spelling: barbecue, bar-b-q, bar-b-que and barbeque.

All that being said, you be the judge and remember what I’ve told you about what’s in a name. As for me, I plan a drive to North Texas in the near future, home of my Texan forefathers, to tread the boards of a sacred place and once again experience the BBQ that has helped me keep my Texas citizenship.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Traveling Texas highways means miles of driving, memories

Texas is a big state. Before Alaska became a state in 1959, Texas was the largest of the then-48 states. I’ve heard Texas is so big and is shaped the way that it is because we were once a sovereign nation and got to choose our own boundary lines, but I haven’t yet verified that information. It sounds plausible to me, though.

The wide open spaces of Texas become apparent as you drive through it. Bob Wills penned the tune, “Miles and Miles of Texas” for a reason. It’s about a six-hour drive to Texarkana from here. It’s nearly seven hours to Brownsville. It’s only three hours to Houston or Dallas and an hour to Austin from here. But as many of you Fort Bliss alumni are well aware, it’s almost nine hours to El Paso.

If you average 65 miles per hour on the road to El Paso, then that averages out to about 585 miles of road.

I knew some people from back East who were invited to a wedding in Waxahachie. They thought they’d just fly into Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on the day of the wedding, get a hotel in Dallas and just drive about five minutes to get to the wedding.

Waxahachie is forty miles south of Dallas. On Interstate 35 with traffic, the drive averages out to about an hour of travel time. You can’t just “pop down to Waxahachie” from Dallas. You have to plan for it. It’s one of those things you learn when you live here.

Those East Coast folks learned the hard way, bless their hearts.

By the way, for a Texan to cross state lines is something of an out-of-body experience for us. It’s like the force-field that holds us here is shattered and we’re lost in space. I’ve driven from Tyler to New Orleans, La. and I can tell you that a Texan out of state is like the proverbial fish out of water. We’re used to driving for hours and hours across Texas and when the state line rises up to greet us, it’s like having the rug jerked out from under us. I know it’s crossed my mind as to whether I need a special plug adaptor for my hair dryer in Louisiana, because in my Lone Star State mind, I know I’m in a “whole ‘nuther country.” I remember crossing the Red River on a road trip to Eureka Springs, Ark. with my grandmother. We crossed the state line in Texarkana and I said, “Gammy, we’re in Arkansas!” to which my grandmother replied, “Honey, we’re in Hell.”

That was in 1980 and Gammy is long gone, y’all, so--with apologies to my Arkansan friends and relatives (I have a cousin up there)--please don’t take umbrage at that. Arkansas is a lovely state and people really should go see Eureka Springs.

Several years ago, my daughters and I went up to Greenville to a wedding shower for my cousin, Rachel. Lisa and Katie chirped, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” the entire way. As is stated in the song, they saw miles and miles of Texas. Honestly, they love a road trip and will jump at the chance to go anywhere. So we went 210 miles north and 210 miles south in 24 hours. Along the way, I pointed out the many landmarks of my childhood memories from the times my father and I rode up and down Interstates 35 and 30. I marveled at the sign indicating that Texarkana was another 140 miles from Greenville. Even to this Texan, Texas is big. “Mama,” Katie asked. “Why does it take so long to get where we’re going?”

“Well, honey, Texas is a big state,” I said, my heart swelling up a little and a lump forming in my throat. I remember asking my father that question on more than one occasion, and here I was repeating a little bit of personal history with my own daughters. “You can’t really appreciate the size of our state until you’ve driven just about every mile of it,” I added.

As we traveled through Dallas the night before the wedding shower, I pointed out the giant, red neon “Pegasus” on top of the Magnolia Building.

“Girls, look at Pegasus,” I said. “When we moved home from Wisconsin when I was just a little older than you are now, I asked my mother how I would know I was home and she said, ‘Look for Pegasus.’ And he has been there welcoming Texans home since 1934.” I confess I got a little weepy seeing the big red flying horse again. Dallas was my home for seven years. Before that, it was something I always saw on shopping trips to Dallas with my parents when I was a girl growing up in Tyler. To see Pegasus again meant that I was home…except that this time, I was just passing through.

Driving back to Central Texas the next day, I realized that the stretch of Interstates 30 and 35 and all the towns and cities in between are home for me. I drive them often just to visit friends and family. So are the winding trails of Highways 31 and 69, the roads I take to go to Tyler from here. I know where to stop for gas and a whole lot of places that are just best left alone. I know how close I am to my destination just by looking at roadside landmarks. And just like in Hal Ketchum’s song, “Mama Knows the Highway,” I can “gauge a cafĂ© by its sign.”

Speaking of cafes, that road trip gave me the chance to share a family tradition with my daughters. While in Greenville, we visited C.B.’s Sandwich Shop on Wesley Street. That was where my father’s family loved to go to get hamburgers. It’s where my father took my mother for lunch when he brought her home from college for the first time more than 50 years ago. Five generations of my family have enjoyed those burgers now and all because we took a road trip.

So while some non-Texans might not enjoy the driving, I’m hoping that you’re a little closer to understanding why we Texans do it without complaining, because along with the miles are the memories, and that alone is worth the drive.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Texas, Texas ueber alles: Germans form part of the Lone Star State’s ethnic diversity

The official language of Texas almost wasn’t English. It wasn’t Spanish or even French, either.

It almost was German.

Ja, you read that right. German.

The largest group of Europeans to immigrate to Texas was the Germans.

Back in 1831, Friedrich Diercks—or Johann Friedrich Ernst, as he was known in Texas—wrote a bunch of letters back to folks in Germany about how fabulous Texas was and the opportunities for settlers in this great land. He described Texas as having a winterless climate, lots of game and plenty of fertile land for farming. Texas, Ernst said, was an earthy paradise.

He was right, of course.

Ernst acquired more than 4,000 acres in an area that is now Austin County, and this is where “Manifest Deutschland” began in Texas.

The Germans arrived in the middle of the 19th century from Oldenburg, Westphalia, Holstein, Nassau, Hanover, Brunswick, Hesse, Thuringia and the Alsace. They settled in Houston, Galveston and San Antonio, as well as establishing towns such as Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Gruene, Boerne and little ol’ Walburg just the other side of I-35 from us. Many Germans came of their own volition; others were organized by the Adelsverein, a group of German nobles looking for greater wealth. Of them were Baron Otfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach (John O. Meusebach), founder of Fredericksburg and peacemaker with the Comanche Indians, and Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels, for whom New Braunfels is named.

Prince Karl eventually returned to Europe; Meusebach changed his name, renounced his titles and became a Texan. Back in the mid-1800s, people just didn’t let go of their places in royal line ups for thrones and crowns.

Then again, Meusebach immigrated to Texas. What else needs to be said?

By the 1890s, the Lone Star State was as much Teutonic as it was Texan. And the Germans really liked our Texas Hill Country. Lots of their settlements ended up there.

Two world wars and a lot of anti-German sentiment ended the German influence in Texas. Ethnic Germans rapidly embraced the Anglo-Texan culture, stopped speaking the language and quit many of their cultural practices. Many of the German language newspapers stopped printing by the early 1950s.

But there’s been a revival of sorts. Fredericksburg and New Braunfels use their “Germanity” to draw tourists. New Braunfels hosts Wurstfest: A Salute to Sausage every year for more than 50 years. It runs from the end of October to about the first week of November. If you want to make your travel plans now, visit Fredericksburg is a curious combination of laid-back Texan attitude and industrious German work ethic, with lots of wineries, dude ranches and gardening supply stores.

San Antonio still has a large German population. The King William Street historic district once was home to the most affluent German-Texans. San Antonio residents knew it best as Sauerkraut Bend. The main entry street into the area was given the name King Wilhelm in honor of King Wilhelm I, King of Prussia in the 1870s, and gradually Anglicized to “William.”

A couple of famous Texans were of German descent and had distinguished military careers. One was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, born in Denison. The other was Admiral Chester Nimitz who was from Fredericksburg.

Years ago, I was in New Braunfels, visiting friends. I stopped at a gas station to fuel up on my trip home. It was New Year’s Day and everybody was wishing each other a “schoene neu jahr.” It was then that I realized my year in Germany spent learning the language was not wasted. I had a conversation in German with a fellow Texan at the gas pump and nobody thought it was strange.

The German flag was never among the original six to fly over Texas, but Germans have had an impact on the state. In the last census, about 18 percent of Texans claimed German ancestry, ranking them right behind Hispanics as one of the largest ethnic groups in the state. Even I have a German, my great-great grandmother, amongst the five generations of Texans before me that went into my genetic composition. Martha Meisenheimer’s people came from Waldalgesheim, Rhineland, Germany.

The Texas frontier of the 1850s is the last place you’d think to find communities with a passion for literature, philosophy, music and conversations in Latin. But the communities of Castell, Schoenburg, Bettina and Leiningen were hotbeds for intellectual conversations and revolutionary social experimentation. All sorts of Utopian communes were organized in the Texas Hill Country at this time. Kinda gives you pause to think about the subsequent hippie and artist population in the area now. Maybe it’s the geography that attracts ‘em. Of course, Texas has always held an attraction for free-thinkers. It’s just that the Germans were the first to take advantage of it.

Then again, the move to Texas might have been fueled by something more basic than a need to exercise a liberal arts education. Most Germans I know are tired of the semi-Arctic climate of das Vaterland and they’re born with the traveling bug anyway. I mean, if you go anywhere in the world, you’ll meet about a dozen tourists from Germany every time. When ol’ Ernst wrote about Texas having a climate much like that of Sicily, I imagine there just weren’t enough boats to hold all the Germans ready to escape eternal winter and go on the road trip of a lifetime.

Summertime in Texas means sharks, jellyfish, sunburns

If you’re planning a trip to the Texas Gulf Coast this summer, be aware that we do have sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Counting shark attacks in 2014 has just gotten started. Mikaela Amezaga, was in waist high water in Galveston when she felt something bump into her back. She didn’t feel any pain or see the shark, but judging from the half-moon, mirror skin breaks on her back, it resembled a shark bite. She was swimming on the West End of Galveston Island near Isla Del Sol Community around 6:30 p.m. when the shark attack happened.

In June 2014, Katherine the Great White Shark was headed our way. Katherine, a 14-foot shark weighing in at 2,300 pounds, was one of a dozen great white sharks tagged last year off the shore of Cape Cod and researchers have been tracking her movements ever since to learn about the breeding practices of the mysterious animals. I don't know that Katherine got up to Texas. I'm told we're too hot for her so she probably didn't come up this way. I'm still researching that one.

Texas college student Kori Robertson was bitten on her thigh by what was believed to be a 5-foot-long bull shark near Surfside over the Memorial Day weekend of 2011. I watched the news story on the KHOU (that’s Houston, y’all) website and just about freaked out.

I don’t swim in the ocean and now you know why.

I don’t swim in lakes, creeks or rivers for similar reasons. Heck, I don’t even jump in mud puddles anymore. If I can’t see what’s swimming around me, I’m not swimming around either.

Robertson’s just fine, save for a nasty scar that looks like she tangled with a giant zipper. I, however, am mortified.

The sharks are swimming in the Gulf of Mexico as they do every year. It just seems they’re a bit more active near the beaches of the Lone Star State this year.

In March 2011, Jason Kresse of Freeport wasn’t even fishing for shark when a 375-pound, 8-foot mako shark jumped onto his boat. He and his crew tried to get to the shark to roll it back in the water since they didn’t have fishing permits for sharks, but it was thrashing around too much and died on the deck. Kresse got to keep the shark since its death was an accident.

I don’t mean to scare you. In fact, in the last hundred years, there have been less than 40 shark attacks off the Texas coast, and of that number, only two were fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File. That’s pretty good if you think about it. Still, the Gulf is home to sharks. It’s THEIR home. And if you go traipsing into shark territory, you are setting yourself up for a meeting and probably not a nice one.

Robertson said she was “in waist-deep water” when the bull shark got her. That’s probably about 3-4 feet of water, depending on her height. Sharks can get you in less than that. So if you’re wading around in the ocean, keep an eye out for what’s around you. Don’t get in the water with an open wound. Sharks are drawn by the smell of blood in the water and it doesn’t take very much. When the mako jumped in Kresse’s boat, he and his crew had been chumming, which means they were tossing fish blood and entrails into the water, trying to lure red snapper.

I didn’t know you had to chum for red snapper. Kind of makes me view the fish in a whole new light and gives me yet another reason to spend my leisure time on land.

The sharks that swim just off the coast of Texas include: Atlantic angel, Atlantic sharpnose, Basking, Bigeye sand tiger, Bigeye sixgill, Bigeye thresher, Bignose, Blacktip, Bonnethead (that’s a type of hammerhead shark), Caribbean reef, Caribbean sharpnose, Dusky, Galapagos, Longfin mako, Narrowtooth, Night, Sandbar, Sand tiger, Sevengill, Silky, Sixgill, Smalltail, Whale, and White. That’s a lot of sharks.

Truthfully, sharks get more bad press than they deserve. They really aren’t prone to bothering people unless the people get in their way. Off the Texas coast, the real worry is the Portuguese man-of-war, a jellyfish that isn’t actually a jellyfish. Brace yourselves, folks. I’m about to get all natural-science-nerdy on you.

The Portuguese man-of-war, also known as the Portuguese Man o' War, man-of-war, or bluebottle, is an obscene-looking, jelly-like marine invertebrate of the family Physaliidae (Physalia physalis). The name “man-of-war” is taken from the man-of-war, a 16th century English armed sailing ship. The man-of-war is a “colonial organism” meaning that it’s made up of a bunch of different critters called zooids that are connected through common tissue. These animals are highly-specialized and, although structurally similar to other single animals, are attached to each other and so dependent on each other for life that they are incapable of independent survival.

Think of this pseudo-jellyfish as a floating family of hungry pirates.

The man-of-war stings to capture its prey, and when I say “sting,” I’m talking about bright, red welts on your skin that last 2-3 days and hurt like Hades for at least an hour after initial contact. Some folks are allergic to its venom, so much so that they die, though this seldom happens. It’s more common to merely want to die after having been stung. And the venom is so potent that even though the man-of-war might be dead, its venom continues to be dangerous. Be warned: if you see a blue balloon floating toward you in the ocean, head for shore as fast as you can.

I hope I haven’t turned you off from a visit to our Texas beaches; you really should go and I think you’ll enjoy the trip. Frankly, the biggest concern on the Texas Gulf Coast is tourists not wearing enough sunscreen. More than the sharks or the man-of-war critters, people should be worrying about getting sunburned and setting themselves up for skin cancer, because that kills more people every year than anything out of a Peter Benchley novel.