Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Merry Christmas from the Family, Texas-style

If you’ve ever heard the song “Merry Christmas from the Family” written and performed by Robert Earl Keen, then you probably already know where this column is headed.

Christmas in Texas is far from the classic Currier and Ives print images we’re used to seeing this time of year. Around here, it’s usually 85 degrees with 95 percent humidity and we’re all walking around wearing shorts. Keen, who grew up in Houston, said he never saw a chestnut until he was 30 years old and that was in a picture in a book.

The holiday traditions in Texas are…different.

Oh, we celebrate with Christmas trees, turkeys, gifts and carols. But that’s where the similarities end.

My father loved “real” Christmas trees. He wouldn’t have an artificial tree in the house. Every Friday after Thanksgiving, we’d go out to his mother’s farm in Greenville and cut a tree. Our trees were Eastern red cedars. The smell of cedar still conjures up strong holiday memories for me. I was an adult before I learned that some people consider these trees invasive and destructive. It kind of broke my heart, but I felt less guilty about all those years of cutting down those trees in my grandmother’s pasture. Evidently, we were eco-responsible before it was cool.

Some of us celebrate the holiday meal with tamales. My family never did, which surprises me because we’re all nuts about Mexican food. My cousin Rachel could recite the menu of the Mexican Inn in Fort Worth before she could recite the alphabet. I think that’s a tradition we might have to borrow.

I mentioned caroling earlier.

Daddy loved Gene Autry’s version of the song, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." He’d sing it. He’d sing loud. And anywhere. Mostly, he’d sing it while my mother and I were trapped in the pickup truck with him, headed to Greenville to see his side of the Family on Christmas Day. Then he’d holler, “Aahh-haaaa!” like Bob Wills after the line, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, had a very shiny nose.”

In our family, we celebrated our immediate family Christmas at about 7:30 a.m. If I didn’t get up first, Daddy would. He’d come into my room, flip the lights on and off and shout, “SANTA CLAUS WAS HERE! HO! HO! HO!” Then he’d run to the living room before I could heft something at his head.

After that, we spent the morning with my mother’s side of the family in Tyler. It was breakfast at Grammo Williams’ house, then presents. At about noon, we’d get in the truck and head to Greenville to see Daddy’s side of the family. There was Christmas Day lunch, then presents, then a football game and finally dinner with leftovers from lunch. Finally, there was the drive back to Tyler. The day was hectic but it was fun. And, though I had no siblings, there were always a bunch of cousins to play with.

The year I turned 12 years-old, I got a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. In Texas, even little girls get BB guns for Christmas. I love watching “A Christmas Story” every year because of that gift. So much of that movie reminds me of the kind of Christmas holidays I had as a child, minus the snow of course. My grandmother even had the old push-button light switches in her house and I remember the same kind of old-fashioned Christmas tree lights being plugged in all in one ungrounded electrical outlet.

No wonder I went to work with firefighters for most of a decade.

You would think that, being from Texas and all Texas-proud that I’d have little Texas and western-themed Christmas ornaments on my tree at home.

Nope.

Santa Claus in cowboy boots, to me, is sacrilege. I like my Santa “traditional.” In cowboy boots, he just looks weird.

I know from personal experience that cats like to chew Christmas tree lights. I remember seeing that poor Persian kitty get zotzed in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and thinking, “That’ll never happen.”

Then I got a Persian cat.

Do not throw a grown-up, glitzy, Dallas-style holiday dinner party with the formal china and champagne, and expect it to go well with a cat in the house. Ever.

Kitty survived, but now and again, I could smell eau de toasted hairball in my furniture’s upholstery some ten years later.

Never, in all my growing up years and beyond, did I ever have a Christmas that looked anything like the fantasies in store catalogs and I’m glad. Our family celebrations put the “fun” in dysfunctional and we all loved each other more for being way less than perfect. As I’ve often heard it said, down here, we’re proud of the weirdos in our family. We like to bring our crazy relatives down from the attic and show ‘em off at dinner. And it’s kind of a Texas thing to look at the whole (Christmas) ball of wax and chuckle at ourselves. I think we’d be disappointed if the holiday went off without a hitch, a heat wave or a redneck relation, so in the words of Robert Earl Keen, “Halleluiah, everybody say ‘cheese!’ Merry Christmas from the family!”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christmas in Texas means oranges in stockings

I don’t know if this is a strictly Texas thing, but every Christmas of my childhood I got an orange in my stocking. Sometimes I’d get an apple and an orange, but most of the time it was just oranges. As a child, I never understood this.

My father finally explained it to me when I was in high school. He grew up in a farming family and there wasn’t a lot of money. Oranges were a rather expensive gift, especially being out of season elsewhere in the country. Of course, in Texas, we have The Valley down around the Texas-Mexico border and the growing season lasts a long time. But in the days of World War II when my father was a child, it was still tough to come by. Getting an orange in your stocking at Christmas was a pretty big deal.

Often, high school agricultural clubs sell citrus fruit as fund raisers. I remember my mother buying lots of fruit from my high school’s Future Farmers of America chapter. She’d give it to relatives at Christmas and it was always appreciated.

Fruit has been a luxury for a long time. It was in a European renaissance history class at Austin College that I learned about “cloved” fruit. It was traditional for a man from a wealthy or noble family to send a lemon or an orange with cloves stuck in it to a woman whom he wanted to marry. Citrus fruit was exorbitantly expensive then, as were cloves, which were not native to Europe, but to Indonesia. The gift was considered terribly decadent. It showed that the man had the money to support a wife in any style she pleased.

It was at a European renaissance-themed dinner party years later that I saw a man propose to his fiancé with a cloved orange. The ring was tied to a ribbon wrapped around the fruit. It was one of the most creative and romantic wedding proposals I had witnessed. And it made me think of Christmas, home and family.

Oranges have always reminded me of my father. I can remember him coming in from mowing the lawn and peeling an orange to eat. He liked to pass on bits of trivia to me, too; especially, the weird stuff.

“You have all your teeth because of oranges,” Daddy told me. “Pirates figured out a long time ago that if they went without citrus fruit on a long voyage, they’d get scurvy and all their teeth would fall out. So eat an orange.”

I was so grossed out by the mental picture of a toothless, nasty pirate and the thought of losing my teeth that I ate oranges until I was nearly sick.

My father had read that vitamin C prevented cancer as well as colds. When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my father peeled oranges until his fingers were raw.

“I’m hoping it’ll keep the cancer from coming back,” he reasoned.

The year before my father died, I had traveled to Florida and brought back a bunch of oranges for him just after New Year’s Day. He had just been diagnosed with cancer. By that time, my mother had been cancer-free for fourteen years. I figured Daddy had been on to something with oranges as a cancer treatment.

It didn’t work, but it was worth a try.

The oranges became a symbol of my parents’ love. While my mother was, as she still is, effusive in her verbalization of love, my father was not. His way of showing his love was by doing things. Peeling an orange and handing it to me or my mother was his way of saying, “I don’t want to lose you.” It was as close as he ever came to saying, “I love you.”

So are oranges in a Christmas stocking a Texas tradition? Well, I don’t know. It’s my family’s tradition, and we’re from Texas, so the math works.

In this particularly difficult year, financially, I’ve thought about giving oranges as gifts. My daughters seem to like them rather well and I have yet to introduce them to the tradition, so I think this is the year to do it. I reckon that when they get around to asking me why they have oranges in their stockings, I can tell them about some of the greatest gifts I’ve ever gotten at Christmas…or any other time of year.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Travel the world without leaving Texas

You can see the world and never leave Texas.

Yep. It’s true.

There are nearly 100 towns in Texas named for someplace else.

Wanna see Europe? It’s possible.

There’s Italy, Texas. And if you’re all about all things Mediterranean, you can visit Roma, Rhome, Ravenna, Naples or Florence. Love Switzerland? We have Alpine and Swiss Alps, Texas. France? How about Paris or Savoy? We even have a Riviera. Into the Benelux countries? There’s Nederland, Holland and Waterloo.

Germany is represented, and not just by the German communities of New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Gruene and Boerne. There’s also Berlin, New Berlin, New Ulm, Weimar, Muenster and Sachse, all of which are named for actual Germanic municipalities. And it’s not quite Austria, but we do have Vienna.

If Scandinavia is more your tin of pickled herring, visit New Sweden.

Prefer the United Kingdom? There’s Dublin, Argyle, Aberdeen, Midlothian, Edinburg, Scotland, Newcastle, London, and New London. You can even go to the Highlands. Trivia sidebar: Scotland is home to two Texas cities; Dallas and Houston. They are, however, significantly smaller than their Texas sisters.

Missing Puerto Rico? Yes, there’s a San Juan. Love the Caribbean? Trinidad awaits, minus Tabago. Jamaica Beach and Nassau Bay are here too.

Love Argentina? We have Pampa.

Russia is represented by Moscow and Odessa.

Looking for something more exotic? There is Orient, China Grove and Tiki Island. Athens, Egypt, Karnack, Iraan, Cypress, Carthage, Corinth and Palestine are here. However, Iraan is pronounced “Ira-Ann” and Palestine is “pal-uh-STEEN,” not “pal-uh-STEIN.” Get it right before you go.

You can also stay a little closer to home and go Canadian. It’s the Oasis of the Panhandle, by the way.

If you’d rather travel within the United States without leaving Texas, that’s possible too. I’d recommend you start in Texas City before you leave, then venture to cities on or near the east coast of the U.S. but right here in Texas. There’s Albany, Buffalo, Boston, New Boston, Pittsburg, Yorktown, Roanoke, Shenandoah, Georgetown, Mt. Vernon, and Atlanta. You can even visit Princeton. Whether you’re from Oregon or Maine, you can go home to Portland.

Fans of the Buckeye State will appreciate Columbus, Cleveland and North Cleveland.

Those from the Show Me State will be happy to know that, yes, we have a Missouri City.

The South is covered too, with Shreveport and Mobile City.

Michiganders can visit Saginaw and Detroit.

Even Nebraskans can find Omaha.

Moving west, there’s Santa Fe, Reno, Pasadena, Beverly Hills, San Diego. And for our Colorado brethren, there’s Colorado City and Denver City.

Yep, just about everybody’s home town, home state or home country is represented in the Lone Star State. I guess that’s part of why “friendship” is our state motto. If I’ve missed any, I apologize and leave you with this: for those looking for something truly out of this world, it is possible to visit Venus, seek Utopia, do your Veribest, Prosper, find Sanctuary and eventually end up in Paradise…all right here in Texas.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Great Place remains great, not just because it’s in Texas

I wrote this column the week after the November 5, 2009 shooting at Fort Hood.

Fort Hood is The Great Place for many reasons.

Before recent events, we were known for our size and our place in this global war on terror, among other things. I mean, this is Texas after all. How could it be anything but The Great Place?

Then, we made national news in a way I reckon for which we’d rather not be remembered…but there it is.

I got to thinking why this post is called “The Great Place.”

Fort Hood has always been a great place to work. In the more than two years I’ve been here, I’ve loved coming to work every day just to be here. I still do.

The Great Place is great not just because of Texas or the Texans that work and live here, but because of ALL the people here that make a difference to our nation.

I’m not blowing smoke or being all sun-shiny when I write this. I mean every word.

I look forward to seeing our gate security guards. We’ve gotten to know each other a little bit in the few seconds we interact each morning as I drive into the main entrance. We call each other by name, wish each other a good morning and manage a little small talk now and then.

Our daily exchanges are comforting to me…especially now.

Every day, I see the women at the little III Corps café, either for breakfast or lunch. Ms. White and Ms. Harris know what I’m ordering before I order and they always take care of me.

The morning after our little world here flew apart at the seams, our Soldiers who guard our building had to search my personal belongings, but they did it with grace.

“Any candy we find is ours,” one said, joking with me. It eased the blow of our sudden loss.

Here in Public Affairs, we all had some fairly unpleasant things to cover. Our television program, Fort Hood on Track, was especially difficult to produce in an emotional context. We had to do stories involving our friends. We had to be one more media outlet in a long line of media entities interviewing our Directorate of Emergency Services personnel. The folks at DES were, as they always are, gracious and accommodating even though they had reached the point of exhaustion a long time ago.

The people in this public affairs office were truly awesome. In the organized chaos of dealing with reporters, every one of my colleagues took a moment to pray for or silently grieve with our Army Families. Public affairs detachment Soldiers poured in to help us shoulder our own burdens and earned my respect even more than they already had. Not one writer, producer, reporter or editor complained about long hours. The only question asked was, “What can I do to help you?”

Speaking of media, several news agencies sent us emails commenting on their experiences at Fort Hood. All were complimentary. One wrote, “Please extend my thanks to all the (Public Affairs Office)s that helped me and others to the best they could under ugly circumstances...I appreciate all the team's efforts to help me get the photos...I am leaving with the impression you all did as much as you could. ...we had all we needed.”

I know that it wasn’t just us who made a terrible experience positive for our visitors. It was all of us, from Army civilian employees and contractors to Soldiers to post residents to our Fort Hood Families.

My hat is certainly off to the Resiliency Center. The timing of having that resource in place could not have been better. If you need it, take advantage of it. I’m contemplating it myself. I’ve come to know a whole lot of folks on this post. Every time I have a question or need a favor, y’all are here. You have a great attitude about everything, which is sometimes hard to muster when times are tough.

Our Central Texas communities stood up to the challenge, too…as we Texans are just bred to do. We’re born for it. It’s deeply embedded in our Texas culture to be kind, gracious and generous, especially when it’s hard. The very best of this nation is right here in one location.

Putting Texas and the United States Army together the way it is at Fort Hood would naturally result in our being The Great Place. We have a lot of healing to do in the days and months to come, but as one of our own so perfectly put it, “Fort Hood will go on.” And it will because of all of us who truly make this the Great Place.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Friendship, not xenophobia, is Texas motto

Texans are noted for being friendly.

Our state motto, “Friendship,” bears this out.

But folks, I’m going to out my fellow Texans on an issue of which I am not proud. There are some Texans who are so adverse to outsiders that they qualify as being xenophobic.

Xenophobia (pronounced, “ZEE-no-foe-bee-yuh”) is a dislike and/or fear of that which is unknown or different from oneself.

There are two kinds of Texans; the first kind is the genuinely kind and gracious person who is actually glad to see you and wants to get to know you. The second kind presents a hail-fellow-well-met façade when he or she greets you, but you’ll never, ever get an invitation to their inner circle of friends for any reason, let alone an invitation to a barn-burning.

The “Second Kind” are the way they are because, in their minds, outsiders don’t belong. You can live in the same home town with ‘em, but you will never, ever be a part of the social strata. You will forever be the “new kid” in town, even fifty years later…and even if you are a native Texan, six or seven generations back. To them, you will never be truly from (insert small town name here) and that’s that.

I can’t stand these folks. Anyone who acts like this and treats people this way has no business calling themselves Texans.

It’s one thing to be suspicious of strangers; that’s just survival and not a bad way to be, considering the way of the world these days. But when you’ve been neighbors for fifteen years and never so much as had a cup of coffee together and a real attempt to learn the names of one another’s children…well, shame on ya. That’s not the behavior of a real Texan.

A real Texan lets you know exactly where you stand in her or his personal cosmic scope. If they don’t like you, they won’t be nasty about it (unless you are). You’ll just get a bit of a frosty reception with little attendant chatter. If he or she likes you, you’ll get more than just small talk when you meet. You’ll get a play-by-play of her or his family’s latest adventures.

You’ll get diatribes about politics and the price of gas. And you’ll get invitations to be a part of their social arena, whether it’s to a church social, the wedding of the first born child or a frog gigging.

The Second Kind is not all made up of snobs; they just don’t see the point of getting to really be friends with an “outsider.” After all, “outsiders” can’t possibly be able to put down real roots in a community. They just moved to (insert town name here) from a town 25 miles west; how can they relied on to be here when the next century comes around? Shoot, if an “outsider” marries a local gal, he might just make her move to the next neighboring town and she’ll never be seen again!

Folks, this is how jokes about in-breeding get started.

I grew up in a city so socially closed that not even the wealthy families mixed, depending on how long a family had its wealth. There are, to this day, two country clubs in Tyler. Willowbrook is for the “old money” and Holly Tree is for the “new money.” The two seldom, if ever, socialize.

Even the bourgeoisie follow the same lines; if your family wasn’t in Tyler by 1930, forget ever being invited to hang out on their party barges at Lake Tyler.

Tyler schoolteachers can tell you that parents will come in for a parent-teacher conference, shake hands and make pleasant conversation. But do not ever acknowledge them in the grocery store unless you are a part of their caste. You are not to be socially friendly; only in a professional context may you address one another.

Is it any wonder I didn’t just move away, but that I ran away screaming?

“How do you do…who are your mama’s people,” is a standard greeting issued to newcomers. I was, for a time, a member of a service league in Tyler via my ex-mother-in-law, but not without a pedigree being presented first. An exception was made to allow me membership, since I was, at the time, married into a family considered acceptable by the establishment, my father was a well-liked professor at the university and my maternal grandmother had had a business in Tyler since 1952.

Never mind that I was five and six generations of old Texas family on my father and my mother’s sides, some of whom had helped settle and build much of North, East and West Texas. No. What mattered here was Tyler, and not Texas.

As Groucho Marx said it best, “I don’t want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member,” and certainly not one that cares more about bloodlines than people.

So if you meet a Texan and you get treated like an alien after the first three friendly gestures you’ve extended to them, don’t take it personally at all. You’ve just had a close encounter with the Second Kind.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

At Texas hotels, ghosts check in but they never check out

Be careful the next time you make a hotel reservation in Texas. You might be checking into a haunted one.

I’ve stayed at the the Saint Anthony Hotel and Menger Hotel in San Antonio. I’ve stayed several times at the Excelsior Hotel and the Jefferson Hotel in Jefferson. I’ve stayed at the Hotel Adolphus and the Stoneleigh Hotel in Dallas, and the Rogers Hotel in Waxahachie. And last summer, I stayed at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. All are reputed to be haunted.

The Saint Anthony Hotel is a little crowded with the ectoplasmic set. One ghost, Anita, used to be an employee of the hotel.

Apparently, she doesn’t know she’s dead and likes to hang out in the women’s restrooms. Another apparition is that of a woman who roams the one of the hotel’s ballrooms. And then there is the couple that seems to be celebrating their honeymoon posthumously.

I’ve heard it said you can’t take it with you, but evidently you can.

The Menger Hotel hosts Teddy Roosevelt for all eternity. Folks say the former American president hangs out in the bar and tries to recruit Rough Riders. About forty ghosts stay at the Menger, so I imagine the Sunday buffet can get a little crowded.

The Excelsior Hotel has been operating continuously since 1850. The Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club runs it and they don’t like to talk about their supernatural guests, but I do. The two rooms with the most spooky action are the Ulysses S. Grant suite and the Victorian Parlor. President Grant and his family stayed in what is now named the Grant suite. The legend is that Steven Spielberg was inspired by the hotel’s haunting and wrote the script for “Poltergeist” based on personal experience there. Not to freak you out too badly, but one of the spirits there wanders around headless. The lights in the Victorian Parlor go on and off without reason. Other than that, it’s pretty tame.

The Jefferson Hotel across the street from the Excelsior has a ghost in almost every room, but no high-speed Internet. A man in a long coat and tall boots has been seen in Room 5. Rooms 12 and 14 have a woman with long blonde hair in it who whispers to you.

Rooms 19, 20 and 21 seem to be haunted more by smell and sound, particularly the odor of cigar smoke and the sound of children laughing. Doors open and close on their own and sounds of furniture being dragged across the floor have been heard. I stayed in Room 25 when I visited and yes, I heard the furniture being thrown around. But the hotel was fully booked at the time. I cannot say for certain that the sounds weren’t made by the living.

In Dallas, the Hotel Adolphus is haunted by a bride who hanged herself after being left at the altar. She is seen walking about the hotel in her wedding gown. The Stoneleigh Hotel has long been a favorite for Hollywood celebrities hoping for privacy while staying in Dallas. I guess, for some, the stay was so memorable they chose to come back in the Afterlife. I don’t know which ones; that’s how closely guarded celebrity privacy is at the Stoneleigh.

The Driskill Hotel in Austin, at the corner of Brazos and 6th Streets, is worth a visit. Cattle baron Jesse Driskill opened the hotel in 1886. Driskill is the main phantom and he’s usually seen wandering the premises, smoking a cigar and turning lights on and off at will. I guess he still reads the electric bills.

Before the Driskill Hotel opened, a serial killer terrorized Pecan Street (now 6th Street) in Austin, at addresses not far from where the hotel currently sits. From New Year’s Eve 1884 to Christmas Eve 1885, an unknown subject was reported as having dragged serving girls from their beds, assaulting them and killing them either by slashing or chopping them to death. The final victims were two wealthy women, a departure from the killer’s modus operandi. Short story writer, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), coined the name Servant Girl Annihilator for the killer in a letter to his friend Dave Hall. In reference to Austin, he wrote: “Town is fearfully dull except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively in the dull hours of the night….”

I imagine some of the spirits at the hotel may well be those of the hapless murder victims. The murders were so similar to the ones attributed to Jack the Ripper three years later that there is speculation they were committed by the same killer.

The former Rogers Hotel in Waxahachie has a lot of ghosts. The building is now an office complex with the After Hours Improv Theater (afterhoursimprov.com) in the basement. One ghost in particular, Emery, has a sense of humor. He liked to hassle the hotel chefs by blowing cigar smoke in their faces. Women reported being followed into the restrooms and being frightened (he’s a bit of a masher). I think I managed to ward off Emery during the times I was there by calling him out.

“Emery, this is Janna. I’m here in the ladies room to do one particular thing. Do not bother me at anytime for any reason because one day I’ll be dead too. And if you so much as create an icy spot or holler ‘BOO!’ while I’m doing my thing here, I will hunt you down in the Hereafter and make sure you end up with beachfront property at the Eternal Lake of Fire!”

Apparently, it worked. And Emery must talk to other spirits, because I am happy to report that I have never, ever been bothered by ghosts, poltergeists, spirits or phantoms at anytime in any hotel at which I’ve been a guest.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The giant crabs of Port Aransas come out at night, look for fishermen

The men went to Port Aransas every year for about a week for sea fishing and camping on the beach. When fishermen came off the fishing party boats, their catches were cleaned right there on the pier for them. The remains of the fish, from perch to shark, were dumped right off the pier there in Port Aransas, as they are today. After all, chum is biodegradable, right? It all goes right back into the marine-life food chain.

The men thought nothing of it.

Later that evening, they sat around a beach campfire outside of the rented RV on the beach. One went off to fish off the pier at midnight, something that was illegal, but everyone did it.

He wasn’t gone long.

The outlaw fisherman returned, empty handed, his eyes wide as saucers and practically unable to speak. “Crabs,” was all he said.

When he was able to catch his breath, the man told of crabs that came out of the water at the sound of his footsteps on the pier. They crawled up on the beach below and turned their stalked eyes upward…at him. “They were the size of dogs,” he said. “Not small dogs, either. They were as big as a cow dog. One was four feet in diameter at least. That one was the biggest.”

The best I can figure is that these were blue crabs. Blue crabs are what are most common in the Gulf of Mexico and they will eat anything, including carrion.

That’s dead flesh.

The fishing party deduced that the giant crabs had grown so large by eating the remains of fishing catches that had been dumped over the side of the pier.

“These crabs,” said the one who had seen them, “They were huge. And the way they looked at me…”

Now at this point I need to tell you that these men were former Soldiers. United States Army Soldiers. These are not men who would be frightened by tiny crustaceans. For a crab to strike fear in the heart of a Soldier…well that’s a pretty big crab. And an assertive one.

The teller of the crab tale, whose name has been withheld to protect his identity, said his friend reported that the crabs not only looked at him, they came toward him.

“He said they moved together, like tanks, slowly at first…then a little faster,” he told me. “He didn’t stick around to see what was going to happen.”

These were crabs with a plan of attack.

As I stated earlier, these crabs were shark-fed. If it’s true that we are what we eat, then picture a crab the size of a Volkswagen beefed up on shark flesh.

Until recently, I had never heard about the giant crabs of Port Aransas. The most I thought we had to fear from the ocean were sharks and Portugese Man o’War jellyfish. That, right there, is what keeps me from swimming in the ocean.

But now I know about the crabs; BIG crabs. And if you believe in Darwin’s theory on the origin of species, you also probably know that animal brains thrive and grow on a rich and varied diet. So if we’re to believe the tales of shark-fed giant crabs, then we should be prepared for super-intelligent crustaceans. Smart crabs, crabs that are aware of you and your potential as a meal; crabs that are fearless and able to open a door with their oversized claws; crabs that know to come to the beach at the sound of human footsteps on a wooden pier.

Crabs from Texas.

That alone should scare you, because everything is bigger in Texas anyway. But Texas crabs that are larger than even Texas crabs should be?

Be afraid.

Be VERY afraid.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

What to do when the children go "native" in Texas

Last month, many Texas children started school for the first time or returned to school. My daughters started second grade; my friend’s son started first grade. Heather related the tale of Cody telling her about his first day:

“He said, ‘Mama, there’s a new girl in school—but she’s not my girlfriend,” he said.

“What’s her name?” Heather asked.

“I don’t know but it’s OK. She’s from Texas,” Cody replied. Yep. Heather’s boy’s gone native.

Well, of course he has. He was born in Texas. It stands to reason. And I must say I’m very proud of him. I like to think it was my influence that made him that way.

But seriously, folks, if your child was born in Texas, he or she is considered a Texan for life.

For many of you, this is good news. Some, however, will be less than pleased. I don’t know why.

Texas is a great place to raise children. The cost of living is low. There are more than two hundred colleges and universities from which to choose. There are many activities and events to attend as a family. There are a lot of great reasons to live here. But for some people, the shock of hearing their children utter, “y’all” the first time is unnerving.

I hope I can alleviate some of that fear.

Texans are friendly. Your child might develop a tendency to strike up conversations with strangers. Be sure to talk to your child about “stranger danger.” Not everyone is friendly here. But you can delight in the fact that your child will be happy and helpful to you and others.

The chances of your child experiencing a little farm life are better here than most places. You are never far from a pasture in Texas. You might not see that as a plus, but it is. There is no better place to learn life’s lessons than on a farm. Your son or daughter will learn a respect for life and learn the cycle of it on a farm. Farms also are a great place to learn humility. A cow doesn’t really care who you are, what your rank is, what you do for a living or who your daddy’s people were. If you tick her off, she’s liable to kick you or head-butt you, and often without warning. You’ll learn manners real fast.

There’s a lot of debate about Texas schools. We contemplate our independent school districts’ navels all the time. But I can tell you that I send my daughters to a Texas school and I am very confident in the district. I’m a product of Texas public schools and a private Texas college and a state graduate school. I went proudly to Austin College in Sherman, a private college, for my undergraduate degree. You don’t get in that school easily or for being stupid or lazy. We have several private colleges and universities of that same caliber. I hope one day to send my daughters to Austin College or a similar private school. And our state universities are those with which others have to reckon and I don’t mean in just athletics. You have, as I stated earlier, about two hundred from which to choose. Heck, you can’t swing a dead cat in this state without hitting an accredited institution at which you can earn a degree. If you stay in the Lone Star State, your little Texan’s chances of going to school to study what they want while staying home are pretty good.

And by the way, we have fabulous teachers in Texas. I’m the daughter of two of them. I had passionate, pro-active teachers all through my schooling, too. And I will defend their honor every time. Teachers are even better when they have the backing and support of their students’ parents. Don’t believe me? Get positively involved in your little Texan’s education. You’d be surprised how much it makes a difference.

Need to take your family for a vacation? Anywhere you go in Texas, you are sure to find a great adventure. Mountains? We got ‘em. Seashore? Yep, got that too. Desert? Forest? Lakeshore? Yep, yep and yep. And you might not need to drive very far. Then again, you might. This is Texas; the mileage is just a fact of life.

Your little Texan will develop a sense of belonging and cultural pride. It will be a cultural pride that transcends ethnicity. Texans are one people with many languages. In fact, we’ve been “pressing 1 for English” since the 16th Century and that’s all right. Spanish was our first language, along with French, well before it was English. Before that, it was the language of our Native American people. English, my friends, is the late-comer. Our exposure to other languages puts us in a position to become more cosmopolitan than our neighbors and that is a good thing.

The men who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and those who fought during the Siege of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto did not distinguish Mexican from American from European. In their hearts, they were “Texians,” and the “Texians” were one people. Through history and the bumps and jolts of the Civil Rights Movement we have drawn even closer to becoming one people. Ask any of us who we are and we will tell you, “I am a Texan.” Not “I’m Scots-English with Spanish, French and German roots,” or “I emigrated from South Korea.” No. It is almost always, “I am a Texan” and the definition of what that means is unique to each one, but clear to all of us.

So when your little one comes home and that tell-tale “y’all” slips out in conversation, don’t panic. Just be proud and know it is simply the first step in your family’s history in becoming real Texans.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mum’s the word: What are those big ol’ flowers girls wear at the homecoming football game?

In the last blog post, I addressed the whole high school/college football homecoming mum phenomenon that’s evidently a Texas-only kind of thing. Sure enough, one of my gal pals, Juls, who is not from Texas, shot an e mail about ‘em out to our little gang of four very close friends, and the e mail traffic was just too good not to publish for all y’all.

Juls wrote: “I worked today selling homecoming mums for a fundraiser at Jasmin's school. While I've seen these elaborate ‘things’ at (a craft store) before, I've never known what they are. We never had anything like this up north so I don't really understand it. I got roped into selling them but I don't really get it. What are they FOR? I'd love to hear your take on this Texas tradition.”

Our resident super-Texan (other than myself, of course), Chris, wrote: “Mums are a cheap flower that give you a lot of bang for your buck. We, at Fairfield High School, have the school colors of maroon and gold, therefore we have mums in those colors to use as bases. We also use white, but usually only old ladies wear the white ones. They are used to show school spirit during Homecoming Week; at least that is how it started out.

“When I was in school, it was the gauge you used to measure the love your boyfriend had for you,” she continued. “The bigger and gaudier your mum was, the more he loved you. I do believe it was during the 1980s when mums started getting out of hand.

“I know one girl who had a triple mum: 3 HUGE maroon mums, pipe cleaner F H S letters glued on top of them, covered in net (helps keep the petals from dropping) and about 20 glitter-lettered ribbons hanging from the bottom of it, conveying messages from ‘GO EAGLES,’ ‘HOMECOMING 1980,’ ‘SENIOR 1981,’ ‘FLAG CORPS,’ ‘BAND,’ ‘RODEO CLUB,’ and the ever important, ‘JOHN LOVES BECKY,’ plus love knot ribbons, braided ribbons, ribbons with tiny gold footballs, tiny cow bells, tiny football helmets, horseshoes; if they made it into a plastic charm, it was dangling from that mum. The ribbons hung to the top of her boots. I, being the sweetheart I am, told her she looked like a @#*&$% bush, and to take that ugly @#*&$% thing off before we hit the field for halftime (I was Flag Corps Captain).

“When Sabrina was in high school, mums went all high tech with tiny battery powered lights that illuminated your mum. Ours in the 1980s ranged in price from about $15-$50. I think I paid around $120 for the one Aubrey got Emily his senior year, and it isn't unheard of for them to go for $200 a pop now a days.”

Niki wrote: “I've MADE mums that cost $250 in materials alone - that was 3 years ago!

“Mums are a way for people to show their importance in today's high school society - not even love of a boyfriend/girlfriend anymore. Parents give them to their kids, friend to friend, significant other to significant other - whatever.

“Our district still emphasizes the white mums, but then again, our colors are Columbia blue, red and white. They're just outlandish these days with stuffed animals and junk all over them; LED lights (are) in the flowers and braided into the hanging ribbons.”

“Oh…and you have to save the mums for all eternity afterward,” I added. “You keep ‘em hung up in your bedroom until they completely fall apart or the moths eat ‘em.”

Juls responded: “Thank you for filling me in on these. I knew you gals would have better insight into these things than I ever could. I saw them done in north Texas as well as here, but nowhere else so I think this is just a Texas thing.

“Because this is the first year they are being done at Jasmin's school (at least since the last 5 years) some of the kids had the same question, ‘What are they FOR?’ The mums we are making use a fake silk flower mum (you can choose what size and single or double) and ribbons and the ‘basic’ trinket package. The base mum is $45 which I'm told is a steal.

“I am curious; why chrysanthemums, though? I have always associated mums with funerals. Every family funeral I've ever been to I've come home with pots of chrysanthemums.”

Chris answered: “‘Cause they are cheap to buy fresh, they are in season and they last along time out of water. When this first started, there weren’t any silk mums.”

And that’s where the conversation ended. I must interject here that I am appalled that a TEXAS high school would curtail the mum tradition. An entire era of Texas high school students went without mums. I think that’s shameful.

But then, Juls lives in Houston. I’m just glad the school administration and parents saw the light before it was too late.

I don’t follow the series, mostly because I am horrified by the way the Hollywood entertainment machine boogers up all things Texan, but I am surprised the series “Friday Night Lights” (set in West Texas and allegedly all about Texas high school football) hasn’t addressed the all-important homecoming mum issue. It is, after all, very central to Texas high school football culture.

But then that would require Hollywood to actually understand Texas in the first place, and folks, that’s not happening anytime soon.

GO EAGLES!

The Texas feminine culture, ritual of football explained

Football season is upon us. I can’t explain the sport to you, in spite of my Texas heritage. It was never a religion in my home when I was growing up. But, I can explain some of the culture and ritual involved with attending football games.

For Texas women, a football game is more than a sport. It’s a chance to showcase ourselves.

Football season is an opportunity to show off your wardrobe and how well you accessorize. It’s a social event during which to forge feminine friendships. And it’s a real good place to swap gossip.

Whether it’s a high school or university game, you will see Texas women all decked out in their casual finery. Every Hawkins High School football game to which I went, I never attended without my hair being perfect and having my lipstick on. Like my friends, I carried an arsenal of cosmetics in my purse for touch ups. To this day, I can draw my compact out of my handbag faster than a gunslinger can draw his pistol. You learn to be fast with the goods, lest you miss a play on the field.

At Austin College, we were pretty casual at our football games. Afternoon games in the late summer made it necessary to dress for comfort, but that didn’t mean we had to sacrifice style. My sorority and I attended in our jerseys and designer jeans. This was in the 1980s, so of course no hairdo was complete without a big bow that matched our Theta Sigma Chi jerseys. This showing of the Greekness was a prelude to spring rush. We only held rush in the spring at AC, so the fall was spent looking as good as possible to potential members. It was all about the marketing and public relations and pretty girls draw in other pretty girls. And pretty girls are always at football games. This is where we got the skinny on who was going to rush whom, what happened after the previous night’s party and which college professor was not getting tenure. We also got to eyeball rival sororities and what they were up to.

I went to work for Texas A&M University in the early 1990s. Attending football games was not a requirement, but I went. I mean, this is Aggie football after all. And the women were drop-dead gorgeous. Slim, long denim pencil skirts, English riding boots and Ralph Lauren turtlenecks, Dooney & Bourke handbags, designer sunglasses…the works. The women rooting for the opposing teams, if they were Texas schools, also were gorgeously attired. In 1991, it was the height of female football fashion.

The Texas-University of Oklahoma weekend is another big fashion event. I don’t mean among the unwashed masses that descend on Dallas streets every October…no. I’m talking about expensive hotel suites with large screen televisions and catered eats. I went to one of these parties while still in college. My then-boyfriend’s parents sent out engraved invitations to the 1986 Red River Shootout soiree, held at the Fairmont Hotel. Attire: high casual in team colors. No kidding, folks; that was printed on the invitation.

I can’t talk about football fashion without mentioning the enigmatic homecoming mum. My non-Texan friends continually ask, “What the heck is up with those gigantic homecoming mums?”

It’s a mystery, y’all, but I’ll try to shed some light.

Football homecoming mums are a Texas tradition, and I’ve heard that Oklahoma does it too. Essentially, the mums are flowers worn as a corsage to homecoming football games.

They have been around as long as I can remember and the mums represent the admiration a young woman inspires in people who know her. The size of the flower in the center of the mass of ribbons in school colors directly correlates to how much a fella loves his girl. The bigger the mum, the greater the love. The more mums a gal has, the more fellas who think she’s the cat’s pajamas. The center flower is a giant, white chrysanthemum usually made of silk and sprayed with glitter. Some mums sport teddy bears in the center. Usually, the ribbons have names and messages on them in glitter letters. The ribbons also have a dozen or so plastic and metal trinkets, especially mini-cowbells, interspersed among them. The result is a bizarre mass of flower and foof that looks like a cross between a parade float and a space ship.

Our 1983 Hawkins High School homecoming queen had so many mums on her, she looked like she was wearing Bjork’s swan dress from the 2001 Oscars. I’ve seen girls hunched over from the weight of their mums, trying to walk up the bleacher steps without tripping over the great gobs of ribbons trailing behind them.

Whether a gal receives a mum on homecoming from her beau determines whether the relationship will last. My first college boyfriend neglected to get me a homecoming mum and got dumped shortly thereafter. Y’all might think that’s shallow, but he and I had an understanding and he breached a sacred tradition of Texas coupledom by omitting this gesture. By not remembering me with that goofy flower, he pretty much said, “I don’t love you and I don’t care if I hurt your feelings.”

I have never forgiven him, and twenty years later, we still do not speak to each other.

The female side of football is complicated. You’re better off not trying to understand it beyond the observance of ritual and symbolism.

If you’re a fella courting a Texas woman, be real sure you let her have plenty of time to get ready to go to the game (she’ll need about 2.5 hours for hair and makeup) and be real sure you don’t forget the flowers.

Your relationship depends on it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

In the wake...

I was at Fort Hood on November 5, 2009. I worked in the Public Affairs Office, producing television for Fort Hood On Track and writing my column, Tex Messages, for the Fort Hood Sentinel. I did that for four years, from 2007 to 2011.

November 5, 2009 was a beautiful day until about 1300 (1:00 p.m.) that afternoon.

By now, you know the story well and I don't have to repeat it for you. So I won't. I don't want to.

Though I was not at the SRP where the shooting happened that day, I saw my share of what happened in the video and photos our own staff brought back. We were affected by what happened. We saw bodies loaded onto helicopters. In our office, we were praying for our staff members who there that day, covering a graduation ceremony at Howze Theater. We couldn't reach them initially. It was terrifying. We endured the hours-long lockdown of the post, and the subsequent traffic jam caused by everyone trying to get home. We were subject to the swath cut through our office in the weeks that followed by both FBI and CID to interview us, grab up our photos and our video, and scare the hell out of us. We went through mandatory psychological screenings, guarded by armed soldiers at another SRP and interviewed by a uniformed Army psychiatrist on the Monday afterward, and then subjected the endless "follow-up" calls from the behavioral health unit at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. What hit me hardest was the look in my daughters' eyes when I came home later than usual because one man decided to commit an act of absolute terrorism at my place of work. I got to come home. Thirteen others never did.

That was enough.

After nearly four years of waiting for justice, Nidal Hasan has been found guilty of murder and attempted murder, stripped of his rank, his pay, and discharged from the Army. He has been sentenced to death. And when he finally is executed, whenever that is, it will be officially over.

But a hole in our lives--all our lives--remains. The survivors who were there at the SRP and saw it all happen, the wounded who lived through it, and the families of the thirteen dead can never have "closure" or "solace" or any of that. Whether a life or death sentence for Hasan, it does not really matter; nothing brings back the life any of us had before.

All of us look at the world differently now. I look for emergency exits every where I go and I have an escape plan, just in case. I don't sit in public places the way I once did. I've changed my life, not because I am afraid, but because I am aware.

There is no closure for that.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Whooping cranes are the Texas-Canadian connection, symbol of enlightenment

The summer I was 15, my aunt, grandmother and cousin went to Rockport down on the Texas coast for a week. I saw advertisements for boat tours to see the whooping cranes. Until that trip, I’d never heard about the whooping cranes of the Texas Gulf Coast. We didn’t get to see the birds and I’ve never been on the boat tours. But I’ve been thinking about the cranes since that summer.

The whooping crane, North America’s tallest bird (five feet tall with a seven-foot wingspan), is endangered and has been since 1970. It flies south from Canada and hangs out in Texas in the winter, arriving in October and leaving in mid-April.

Named for their loud call, the snow-white whooping cranes are our wildlife “connection” to Canada. They breed up in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and then fly more than 2,400 miles to get here.

Folks, that’s some kind of dedication. I don’t even like to drive to Houston much less contemplate an annual round-trip flight of that distance anywhere.

Why am I making a big deal about a bunch of birds?

Less than 375 of them exist in the world. And four of those 375 whoopers are at the San Antonio Zoo right here in the Lone Star State. That’s pretty seriously endangered.

We Texans have been entrusted with a sacred duty to preserve the birds and that’s happening at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Austwell. Our Canadian partners are doing the same at Wood Buffalo National Park. In a way, the cranes are our connection to another country and they are a reminder that we need each other for survival.

So what are the birds like? According to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, whooping cranes mate for life, but will accept a new mate if one dies. The cranes can live up to 24 years in the wild. A mated pair shares brooding duties; either the male or the female is always on the nest. Generally, one chick survives. It can leave the nest while quite young, but is still protected and fed by its parents. Chicks are rust-colored when they hatch; at about four months, chicks' feathers begin turning white. By the end of their first migration, they are brown and white, and as they enter their first spring, their plumage is white with black wing tips.

I’m intrigued by the fact that the birds mate for life. Makes you wonder if humans were given dominion over the animals, then why is it that the animals get the whole partnership thing right when so many of us don’t?

About 290 of the cranes arrived during the autumn of 2010 at ANWR. I read that that is a record and shows the cranes are making a comeback. After 36 years on the endangered species list, I hope so. But the birds have a long way to go and won’t be off that list for some time. And they need our help.

For the cranes to survive, water is critical. It’s where they live, eat and breed. Without water, there is no food. The birds eat blue crabs that must have fresh water to live. Texas has had some serious go-rounds with drought, but it looks like the cranes are managing in spite of the challenges.

I don’t really know what impact the cranes have on their ecosystems. Some argue that the loss of whooping cranes has absolutely no impact, but I have a feeling if we lost the whooping crane entirely, it would soon become apparent what we lost. That’s usually the way of things: you don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

And the birds are important, not just ecologically, but spiritually.

In some cultures, the crane represents happiness, wisdom, longevity and immortality. It is believed that the wings of the crane carry souls to heaven or into spiritual enlightenment, bringing them out of the darkness and into the light. In ancient Egypt, the two-headed crane represented the beginning of an age of joy and prosperity. So I wonder if the increased numbers of whooping cranes that returned to us this year represent better times ahead. It certainly represents enlightenment in that we’re not just thinking about ourselves anymore, and that’s almost always a good thing.

Whatever the return of the cranes means for Texas and Canada, it also means something to me. The whooping cranes remind me of a trip I took with people I love and the chance to reach out to others in an entirely different place in a way that makes a real mark on the world. They remind me that survival is possible against crushing odds and that it is important to accept the help offered by others to make that survival possible.

If wild birds can do that, then we can too.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Texas public school history books under fire thanks to Texas beauty queen

Originally written in January 2010.

Social studies textbooks in Texas public schools are under scrutiny. Evidently, parents, teachers and some activists got all balled up about how our children are taught history and now everything’s being examined, re-examined and re-re-examined. When I first read the story in the news, I panicked. I thought they were going to take Texas history completely out of the curriculum. Not so, I’m happy to say. But there is a fly in the (beauty) ointment.

The hubbub is not about references to Christmas, Cesar Chavez or even the religious views of our nation’s founders as much as there’s a bit of a stink about Texas cosmetic queen being mentioned in school textbooks more often than Christopher Columbus. Now y’all…this is where I get a bit agitated.

I’m not knocking Columbus or his 15 minutes of fame when he set foot on The Bahamas some five hundred years ago. But y’all, he never came to Texas. Mary Kay Ash, however, changed the faces and fortunes of Texas women, and the world. So let’s get our priorities straight here.

Ash worked in the traditional workplace for half her life and after getting passed over for a promotion that was rightfully hers, she quit. She didn’t get mad, either, but she did get even. In 1963, Ash launched her own cosmetics business in Dallas. The difference in the way she did business and the business practices of her previous employers is that she used incentive programs rather than sales territories to motivate her employees. And she operated under the basic tenet of treating others well. In five years, Mary Kay Inc. went public.

Ash was a Dallas blonde, too. So that right there tells you the lady was motivated as well as successful.

Columbus, bless his heart, has been a controversial figure in history classes. Whether he was the first European to find the Americas or he trailed the Vikings in discovering what the indigenous people of the Americas found thousands of years earlier, his place in history is pretty solid if a bit questionable. He takes a lot of heat for what his arrival meant to those who were already here. One could say (and it has been said) that Columbus might have been a rather shady character, too.

Not so with Mary Kay Ash.

Ash wasn’t just the Texas cosmetics queen; she wrote several books about marketing. She was considered someone worth taking seriously in American business. And, pink Cadillacs aside, the lady made money in just about everything she did and she showed others how to do it too.

Now that’s making your mark in the world.

All kidding aside, I do realize the importance of European exploration and what it meant in the five centuries post-Renaissance. But I just have to chuckle that we’re all goony over how many times Mary Kay Ash appears in history books over Columbus. I mean, honestly; so what?

For the record, Ash is mentioned twice; Columbus only once in the books in question. If all our teachers relied on were schoolbooks, I’d worry. But the fact is, most Texas schoolteachers do an excellent job in using other teaching tools to educate. Our teachers have a greater impact on our children than textbooks. They educate, motivate and persevere in the toughest environments and against the greatest odds. The times that Texas teachers positively touch the lives of our children are worth counting more than the times an historical figure gets a mention in a textbook.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dressing like a professional in the summertime in Texas is an adventure

Summertime presents a special set of challenges for Texans, not the least of which is what to wear to work.

When the majority of us worked on farms and ranches, the attire was easy: wear that which was conducive to working with dirt and livestock, which generally meant lots of denim and leather. Now, lots of Texans work in an office environment with air conditioning. Still, the outdoors is never far away and that means copious amounts of heat in the summer.

When I started working after graduate school, I dressed in a business suit, hosiery and heels, right along with all the accessories. I worked in hospital public relations, newspaper and broadcast news so I had to look the part of a professional. The only break from the suit I got was during the two years I worked for Texas A&M University at the Ocean Drilling Program.

Universities are a different environment and wearing blue jeans to work is generally acceptable, especially if you’re a research assistant handling core samples from the oceans’ floors and publishing scientific proceedings volumes.

But in news, the only people who have the luxury of casual attire were the photographers. Reporters have to look credible because they’re on camera and working with all levels of society. But there’s a problem.

Picture if you will, wearing a business suit and riding in a news station van or SUV in July with a photographer (also known as a videographer or photojournalist) all over your region. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s nasty. And you are wearing a suit. Your partner is in a T-shirt or polo shirt and jeans or shorts. He or she is marginally more comfortable and much more casual.

It’s possible that the vehicle you are riding in lost its A/C last summer and the station hasn’t had it due to budget constraints.

Your schedule is such that it is impossible to sit down for a decent meal, so both of you know all the menus of area fast food joints by heart, and the wrappers of past meals are probably all over the front and back seat because stopping to clean up and clean out takes valuable time away from getting your stories shot and edited for broadcast, right?

Photographers can be a cavalier lot and they like their condiment comforts when eating burgers and fries, so you are likely to have a dozen half-opened ketchup and mustard packets hidden all over, especially in the seats. In fact, the entire van is probably a clutter magnet, what with reporter notebooks, tape cases, tape labels, camera batteries, gaff tape, event flyers and all sorts of media detritus flung all about the interior.

Most days in July have temperatures of up to and beyond 100 degrees. So all this junk is thrown together and cooking while you and your partner are in and out of it covering stories.

Got a real good mental image going now? Good.

Here’s your story line-up that you have to go cover, shoot, edit and have ready to air by 6 p.m.: a suspect walk at the police station, a congressman speaking at a luncheon (at which you will not get to eat), tire factory employees picketing outside the plant and an oath of citizenship ceremony at the court house. You have six hours to accomplish this and you will probably rack up 45-65 miles on the odometer.

Half-way through your day, your assignments editor calls to let you know that the sheriff’s office has discovered a body in a vacant lot. Can you go cover that too while you’re out?

The day’s high temperature is forecast for 102 degrees according to your weather anchor.

Oh, and you and your photographer have to go back to the station and get the satellite truck for a live shot at 6 p.m. at the scene where that body was discovered.

You do not get to go home and shower. You’re lucky you got to stop to use the restroom. You might have time to brush your hair.

And it’s 104 degrees by lunch time.

And you sat in ketchup. And you’re too far from home to go change.

And it’s hot.

It’s really hot.

A side note about the assignments editor: he never has to leave the newsroom, so he has no concept of time, space, distance or external temperature. He really does believe that you can get all those stories in the six-hour time frame you have. He’s in that newsroom and should know that it sometimes takes at least one hour of production time per finished minute of video, and that’s just the writing and editing part. He has an office and it’s air conditioned, too.

This is a good time to remember that he is your life-line to stories and events in the area. If you want to continue covering the good stories, you should be nice to him. He’s not trying to be malicious; he just really doesn’t know. And there is a good chance he’s not from Texas, either. So distances might be a little confounding to him.

There’s a reason we media folks tend to be a little cranky. Now you know why.

I learned a long time ago in the news business in Texas, it is wise not to invest too much in your wardrobe, to make sure it is machine washable and doesn’t require ironing, to ditch the hosiery altogether and to carry a change of clothes with you just in case. Deodorant and fabric fresheners are must-haves too. I knew a reporter who kept rubber boots, sneakers and blue jeans in the news van so that she’d be appropriately dressed no matter what the story.

Long after I was out of the news business, I learned this was a good practice in any field that required me to dress up for work. Just spending more than five minutes outdoors in the summertime is enough of a catalyst for breaking out in a sweat.

I’ve seen corporate dress codes relax over the years. Much of it, I’m sure, is in response to the fact that—in Texas—it’s just ridiculous to expect employees to dress year-round as if the weather is that of New England in the autumn when in fact it is mid-summer in the virtual frying pan of the American Southwest. And employee productivity and physical comfort do correlate. Don’t believe it? Just try delivering the news and looking cool, calm and professional while pouring a bucket of sweat from your armpits.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

This end up: Proper display of Texas flag, discussion of football coaches are complicated in spite of simple design

One of the most misunderstood things about Texas is our flag.

The Texas flag, for all its simplicity, somehow is complicated for some folks. I can’t tell you how many times I drive by a house that has our banner flying upside down.

The Texas flag is, like most state flags, rectangular and has a width to length ratio of two to three. It contains one blue vertical stripe that has a width equal to one-third the length of the flag; two equal horizontal stripes, the upper stripe white, the lower stripe red, each having a length equal to two-thirds the length of the flag. It has one white, regular five-pointed star located in the center of the blue stripe, oriented so that one point faces upward and sized so that the diameter of a circle passing through the five points of the star is equal to three-fourths the width of the blue stripe.

The red, white and blue of the Texas flag are the same shades and hues of the American flag. The colors represent bravery, purity and loyalty, respectively.

Now that’s a pretty detailed description of our flag and it is outlined thusly in Chapter 3100, Section 002 of the Texas Government Code.

Please note the part that says the white stripe is “upper” and the red stripe is “lower.” The star also has one point facing upward. Pretty clear instructions on which end is “up,” right?

Evidently, not.

One of the first things Texas school children learn well before their seventh grade Texas history classes is which end points heavenward with regard to our flag. And yet…oh my…

This is where I have to stop writing and take a deep breath so that I don’t scream.

For me, the whole flag display debacle ranks right down there with Jimmy Jones’ ownership of the Dallas Cowboys and that terrible and tacky way he treated Tom Landry, the last of the professional football “gentleman” coaches.

I can’t even speak Jones’ name without hissing and spitting. But that’s a topic for another column on another day, in which I’ll tell y’all about the very heated conversation I had with ESPN blogger, Jeff Pearlman, about his book on the Cowboys entitled Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty, and our rather loud disagreement about how Coach Landry was handled.

Come to think of it, I cannot speak Pearlman’s name without spitting, either. And wanting to wash my mouth out with soap. I am not a follower of football, professional or otherwise, but I will not broker bad press about Saint Tom, and I told Pearlman exactly that before I told him where else he was welcome to go.

Y’all…I confess that I was, in that moment, not a lady…but Mr. Pearlman was not a gentleman.

Back to our flag…

Section 3100.059 of the code states that if the flag is displayed vertically, the blue stripe should be above the white and red stripes and the white stripe should be, from the perspective of an observer, to the left of the red stripe. For more information about the Texas flag and its proper display, go to www.tsl.state.tx.us/ref/abouttx/flagcode.html.

If y’all got nothing else out of this week’s column other than a tangent about my complete distaste for Jerry Jones--and those of his ilk--remember this: when it comes to flying the Texas flag, the white stripe tops the red stripe. Red stripe up means you are in distress and need assistance. So if you don’t want me standing on your front porch, beating on your door while dialing 9-1-1, display the Texas flag correctly, please…especially if you’re a Texan.

As for Tom Landry, not a single Cowboys coach after him has even come remotely close to touching his 270-178-6 record with the team, even if Jones would show some real leadership skills by backing off and letting them do what he hired them to do.

Landry was surpassed only by Don Shula who finished his career with the Miami Dolphins and George Halas of the Chicago Bears. In spite of the disgraceful way he was shown the door by Jones, Landry ended his career as the National Football League’s third “winningest” coach of all time.

Landry was a class act in everything he did, from the way he dressed to the way he handled people. With Landry as the head coach, the players were expected to exemplify a higher standard of personal conduct, both on and off the field. They didn’t always, but the expectation was there.

It is said that Landry refused to keep up with the times, but I disagree. I think the times—and the people in them—couldn’t measure up to him.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Corporate buzzwords redefined for Texas culture

I had been in the post-college Texas workforce about six years before I heard my first round of idiotic corporate buzzwords. In the places I worked, namely television newsrooms, university research departments and hospital public relations suites, I had never heard the hodge-podge of mindless business verbal effluvia until I went to work for a corporate educational television company in Dallas.

Buzzwords and phrases such as “leveraging” and “thinking outside the box” were not a part of the language with which I grew up. Even in college and graduate school, I never ran across this butchering of the English language until sitting in that corporate meeting room and listening to a vice-president of marketing drone on and on about stuff that meant absolutely nothing to me. Oh it sounded like standard American English, but it wasn’t.

“Team, we’ve got to leverage our assets to benchmark our products. We need to be concerned with branding and creating win-win situations for ourselves and our customer base,” he said.

I got up and walked out.

This is English? This is how people in a business setting talk to each other?

Really?

So I got to thinking about those mindless words and phrases. What do these things actually mean to a Texan?

Well, let’s look at some of the more overused words. I shall assume that you understand the corporate business buzzword meaning already. I, however, will provide the definition of what those buzzwords sound like to a Texan.

• Benchmarking: writing one’s name on one’s lawn furniture

• Best of breed: the quality of dogs, horses or cattle

• Beta-testing: my grandmother used to keep a tank full of beta fish in a No. 10 washtub in her backyard under a live oak tree. I assume that beta-testing means pitching something in that tank with the fish to see who lasts longest.

• Bizmeth: something you ought not to be cooking in your basement

• Branding: marking your stock with your ranch’s brand using fire and a really hot branding iron

• Thinking outside the box: contemplating an issue while not in the restroom

• Cloudability: it will rain soon

• Contingency planning: marking all the clean restrooms on your road trip route

• Disconnect: to unplug something

• Elevator pitch: what is likely to happen if you jump up and down in an elevator

• Empowerment: the electric company finally fixed that power outage after the storm

• Exit strategy: finding the fastest way out of a honky-tonk when the cocktail waitress’ boyfriend shows up

• Facetime: what I do every morning in the mirror

• Fuzzy logic: how furry animals think

• Leverage: using a fulcrum and lever to move something, such as poking a fencepost under a cow that’s stuck in the mud to get her out

• Long tail: a really nervous cat in a room full of rocking chairs

• Mashup: what one does with potatoes, particularly at Thanksgiving

• Monetize: painting in the style of a French impressionist painter

• Offshoring: hanging out on a party barge

• Organic growth: something the doc ought to take a look at before it gets much bigger

• Outsourcing: throwing something away

• Paradigm shift: paying back that twenty cents you owe your buddy

• Pork-barrel spending: buying a whole lot of bacon

• Proactive: Nolan Ryan before he retired

• Synergy: getting up the gumption to do something the deacons at your church might frown upon

• Vaporware: anti-gas medication

• Win-win: a champion who stutters

So now y’all know what I was thinking in the seven years I spent in corporate hell. Every time I sat in a meeting with a vice-president or corporate executive-something-or-other, my eyes would glaze over and my brain would tune out at the first crazy combination of nonsensical verbiage. I felt like a Martian listening to Slim Whitman sing “Indian Love Call” for the first time in the movie, “Mars Attacks!” Oh I wanted to throw the “fertilizer flag” on quite a lot of stuff, if I only knew what in the heck they were talking about. But then I realized that the corporate types didn’t know either; they just needed to sound like they did so their coworkers didn’t know that they didn’t know. After all, sounding like a clueless ivory tower specialist beats drooling on yourself in public.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tube on Texas rivers for beating heat, having summer fun

Two years ago this week, there were 2,000 people trying to go “tubing” in the Comal River. It made the national news. About 4,000 were waiting in line just to take their inner tube (hence “tubing”) onto the river just to cool off from the heat. New Braunfels city officials eventually had to shut it all down and turn people away because they didn’t want folks floating down the river in the dark.

The thought of 2,000 people on inner tubes floating on a river causes me to wonder just what kind of “carbon footprint” these folks left in the water as they float. It can’t be a pretty one, that’s for sure.

The Comal, San Marcos, Frio and Guadalupe rivers are the major ones for tubing, but I’m told there are other places to go in Central Texas. From what I’ve researched, “tube” season runs from the middle of March to October, weather permitting.

I’ve never been tubing (or “toobing” as some spell it). Tubing, to me, is a mystery shrouded in danger and ritual. I have not been initiated into this part of our Texas culture yet, in spite of my native Texan status.

It’s never been something that appealed to me because it involves getting into a river, but it is a rite of summer in Texas for many people. Even Texas comedian, Ron White, has mentioned it in his stand up comedy routines. I won’t tell you what he’s said, but I will tell you it’s one of the many reasons why I don’t go tubing.

In defense of Central Texas rivers, the ones that people like to “tube” on are generally crystal clear and beautiful. I don’t mind hanging out in the Guadalupe River because I can see what’s swimming around me and I have an illusion of control over the forces of nature.

If you plan to do this, pick your river, then pick your lodging. You can rent cabins, camp or take an RV, depending on where you go.

Evidently, people like to take coolers with them when they “tube.” One does need to stay hydrated and fed in the heat, and nobody should be drinking out of the river, especially with all those people floating around. If you take a cooler, you’ll need a tube for it. Know that fact in advance. A soft sided cooler is recommended. Glass bottles, Styrofoam coolers and beverages containing less than five ounces of liquid are not allowed.

By the way, it’s generally a “party crowd” on the rivers. You’ve been warned.

Take water shoes with you. Flip flops are not going to be enough protection for your feet. Most of those river bottoms and the surrounding environment are rough and can tear up your feet. Wear waterproof sunscreen and reapply often.

If we ever get rain down our way again, please note that these rivers are prone to flooding. If you are told not to go in the water or not to cross a low-water bridge because of flooding, believe it. I have seen the Guadalupe at full flood and it is terrifying. Don’t mess with Texas rivers, especially when they flood.

There are many “tube” outfitters along these rivers. Texas Tubes.com, Rockin R (rockinr.com), and TubeHaus.com are the first three I found on the Internet. You’ll want to shop around tubing outfits to find one you’re comfortable with before you commit. If you are wondering whether the drought has affected the tubing business, well…yes. It has, but not enough to hurt it, from what I can tell. The rivers are a little lower than normal, so you might want to consider tubes with bottoms on them lest you scrape your backside on river rocks.

If you want to sample the tubing experience without going into the water just yet, go on over to YouTube.com and do a search on tubing in Texas. There are a lot of amateur videos and a few professionally produced ones that can give you a taste of what it’s like.

As for me and mine, I think I’ll continue to research the pastime before committing to it. Until then, I’ll live vicariously through all y’all, so let me know if you go and be sure to give me a full report of what you thought of the experience here in the comments section.

Happy “tubing,” y’all.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Cicadas create sound, music, memories of Texas summer

That “REEEEEE! REEEEEE! REEEEEE!” sound coming out of the trees this summer is nothing to worry about. It’s not the sound of a UFO or aliens. It’s not some weird project out of Operations Test Command on Fort Hood.

It’s coming from the bugs.

The cicada, sometimes called the dog-day cicada, and the smaller periodical cicada, are a Texas summertime tradition and the most recognizable singing insects found here. The periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim) completes its life cycle in 17 years. The dog-day variety (Tibicen species) live 2-5 years, so you’ve always got some kind of cicada showing up in the late spring to mid-summer.

That “singing” you hear are the male cicadas “calling” the females. That “song” is sung by means of two special vibrating membranes in the sides of the abdomen. Females do not call, but evidently they do answer. The result is clusters of eggs inserted to tree twigs, then hundreds of nymphs burrowing into the ground. Adults emerge from April through July, depending upon species and where y’all are at.

It’s a scene out of a 1950s science-fiction B movie. And you have my father to thank for my knowledge on that. Once again, the Texas college professor’s endless treasure trove of trivia has been passed on to you via his daughter; another triumph for the liberal arts crowd.

If you’ve come across mysterious brown, flaky exoskeletons on everything from gutters to trees to car tires, you’ve been formally introduced to the critters. The exoskeletons are shed by the cicada nymphs, and they provide endless summertime fun for children. My cousins and I used to play for hours with those nymph shells. First, we’d collect as many as we could find and organize them into armies, choreographing mega bug battles. Then we’d see how many we could string into our hair at one time.

Hey, when you’re out in the country and bored, that’s high-grade entertainment, y’all.

After that, we’d hide them all over my grandmother’s house and wait for one of our mothers or aunts to find them. There wasn’t much sport in that, since they’d all done the same thing a generation before us.

During the brief spell my parents and I lived in Wisconsin, I brought back cicada nymph shells from a trip home to Texas on summer break to school for show-and-tell. My classmates were appropriately creeped out by the experience. But I was considered the coolest kid in my second grade class for a whole two weeks.

My daughters, Katie and Lisa, are three. Much to my dismay, they are the girliest of girly-girls and the cicada nymph exoskeletons are nothing short of horrific and monsterous to them. I tried to induct them into the tradition of cicada childhood fun and they ran screaming.

I was crushed. I’ve since learned that I’m going to have to ease them into some of my Texas childhood traditions or save up for a whole lot of counseling in the future.

In case you were worried about the health and safety of your trees with regard to our Texas cicadas, don’t be. Texas species are not considered to be plant pests. On the contrary, they’re rather welcome.

Cicadas are our song of summer. It’s the song of iced tea, fifth Sunday suppers at the church, visiting grandparents, playing with cousins and running through the lawn sprinklers. It’s fireworks and fried chicken and family.

That cicada song was playing one afternoon when I came home for lunch. The boys were singing at the top of their lungs and it was a particularly hot day, as they’ve all been since late June. I stood on my front porch listening to that whine and thinking there was nothing more beautiful than that sound. It took me back to a simpler time when I wasn’t much older than my daughters are now. I almost could smell the okra cooking on the stove, taste the watermelon freshly cut on my grandmother’s front lawn and I could almost hear cows mooing in the pasture across the dirt road from her house…an experience I’ll probably never get to share with my girls.

But at least we will have the cicadas.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Texans are rain crazy on the road, in the grocery store

It's raining in Central Texas. Be prepared for utter chaos.

It is the top topic of conversation on social media among my fellow Texans. As I got ready to walk out my front door this morning, I looked around for my umbrella and couldn’t find it. We’ve been without rain for so long I don’t know where the thing is anymore.

We've had a pretty good dousing in the last 36 hours. I'd forgotten what rain smelled like until today.

Why is this such a big deal? Well, when it rains, we Texans lose our minds.

Drought seems to be the perpetual state of our state these last thirty years and in those three decades we’ve gotten pretty weird about rain. We’ve been weather-crazy since we were a sovereign nation anyway, but this is a little different than in years past. When it rains, you might not want to leave your house for about 24-48 hours. People on the road will drive like maniacs. Too slow or too fast, they’re coming down the road like drivers’ licenses were on sale at the drug store.

If you don’t have to be anywhere like work or school, stay off the road when it rains for that first time in months.

All that oil and dirt and unidentified “goo” on our streets and highways will combine in the rain to form a slick film and hydroplaning will not be the only rain-associated road danger. In that first 24 hours of rain, it will be like driving on black ice. Give yourself plenty of space between you and the vehicle ahead of you on the road.

Be aware of the jughead in the truck who thinks because he owns a F350-something, he is invincible and immortal.

He is not.

Don’t be the one who convinces him of this.

If he’s on your tail and you can get out of his way, do so and let him get on his path to meeting a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who will be more than happy to show Bubba the light of wisdom. Go on and let him spin helplessly out of control on the rain-slicked highway so he can get better acquainted with his auto insurance policy at a later date. Bubba might make you madder than a wet cat with the tacky way he behaves on the road, but he won’t be taking you with him.

On the other end of the idiotic driving spectrum is “Timid Tilly.” This driver will be doing 20 mph in a 40 mph zone thinking that he or she is doing us all a favor by toodling along at the speed of smell when, in fact, our “friend” is setting you up for an “epic driving fail.” We might expect someone to drop her or his speed to 5-10 miles below the speed limit, but this person is going half the speed limit and that lack of anticipation probably is the greatest cause of a wreck in this situation.

Of all the times to “drive Texas friendly,” a light, steady rain is that time to do it and the onus might well be on you alone to make it happen.

I don’t want to discourage you about Texans and our ability to operate vehicles and heavy machinery in the rain, but I do want to caution you about us.

When the weather forecasters predict wild weather, there’s also generally a mass exodus of staple foods and goods from grocery stores. Since we’ve been without rain for so long, I would not be surprised if folks didn’t descend on our area food markets and buy up all the bread, milk and canned goods. The last few times we had significant rain, we had flooding to go along with it and we all remember what that was like.

I’m not telling you to run to the store and start hoarding canned corn and ammo, but I am telling you that there will be people like this out and about. Be prepared for a real show of weird behavior when water starts falling from the sky.

The first few days of rain generally aren't significant. Initially, we get squirted just enough to be teased but not enough to make a difference in our lawns. I doubt we will see any H2O worth writing about until possibly October. But three drops will fall and Texans will behave like Viking berserkers in the produce section. The store parking lots will look like that scene in “Frankenstein” when the villagers show up with torches and pitchforks, except there won’t be any torches since there’s a burn ban on across the state.

Personally, I don’t care how nutty folks get about the rain. I’m just glad to see the stuff again.

So buckle up when you drive and make sure you got to the dairy section at the store early on this week. Keep your eyes on the road, your hands on the wheel and your insurance card where you can find it. And don’t worry; the rain (if it comes) will pass long before your lawn gets enough precipitation to be green again.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Remembering Texas summers of another age

This was written when I still worked for the Army at Fort Hood. It was written in 2009. Enjoy.

There are some evenings during my drive home from post that I roll down the windows in my car just to smell the sunflowers. To me, they represent summertime in Texas and this is where I start to ramble, so y’all bear with me. Sunflowers make me get all sentimental about my dad. I smell ‘em and I am reminded of walks with my father in a pasture during summers spent in Greenville, Tex. On these walks, my father would expound at length about all things liberal arts or natural sciences.

I think I got more education walking through those pastures with Daddy than I did on my January Terms at Austin College. I learned about cottonmouth and copperhead snakes, trust, cows and calving, common sense finance, skunk risk assessment, dairy bull psychology, the hygiene habits of hogs (they’re not what you think), good dogs and bad neighbors, milkweed, the combined physics of firecrackers and cow patties, tractors, mules, ticks, Johnson grass, possum forensic science, Uncle Doc, forgiveness, God and feed store politics.

And then there was the bull.

Domino was a Hereford bull my father and his brothers inherited when my grandfather died. He was my first recollection of cattle up close and personal. For reasons known only to them, beef bulls appear to be a bit more tolerant of people than dairy bulls. Domino never seemed to mind my sitting on his back while he grazed, so I didn’t take it personally the one time he decided to get a closer look at me via his nose and smeared bovine snot all over my clothes.

Domino was a sweetheart; his girlfriend, a Charolais heifer aptly named Stupid, was not. Word to the wise: when a cow has a calf it’s not an occasion for a baby shower.

As a little girl, I went fishing for catfish in a creek with a cane pole and raw bacon for bait. I went digging for crawdads in a muddy pasture. Incidentally, this is where I learned about the particular adhesive quality of North Texas mud on boots, which can make you a whole head taller than when you left the house that morning.

Our summers weren’t always as hot as the one this year. There were early mornings in the summer when the breeze was so cool I needed a sweater just to walk outside. That was usually a good morning to go dig a post hole, so out Daddy would go with a post hole digger, some bois d’arc posts and a roll of barbed wire (pronounced “bob wahr”) to fix a fence. By the way, if the fence is wood and barbed wire, the rancher’s income is supported by ranching. If you see a fancy fence on a ranch, his income is supported by something other than ranching. And the smell of cow manure is the smell of money. All this wisdom is courtesy of my father and the time we spent doing things I once considered horribly boring and terribly unglamorous.

It got pretty exciting, however, when the cows got out. You haven’t lived until you’ve jumped up and down, waved your arms over your head and shouted, “WOO!...WOO!...WOO!” in your pajamas like an idiot to drive a bunch of cows down a dirt road and back into a pasture.

Canton First Monday Trade Days, the self-proclaimed world’s largest flea market, was a tradition for us and not just during the summer. But I associate it with summertime. It’s also where I developed a fondness for bluegrass gospel and ballpark nachos. First Monday almost always had an improvised bluegrass ensemble playing somewhere on the grounds; they usually were good. The nachos? Not so much.

For me, summers in Texas also meant horses. The smell of horse sweat and leather remind me of going on rides with my aunts in Tyler. I can’t remember how old I was when I first “sat a horse,” but I do remember hours spent on them. I also remember picking out a lot of hooves, digging mites out of ears and shoveling a lot of poop. It was good prep for a career in journalism and convinced me not to own a horse.

My childhood best friend, Kim, and I would visit her cousins, Manonne and Lindy, in Lufkin every August, from the time we were in junior high school until about our freshman year in college. We’d spend a week riding horses with Manonne, sometimes in a saddle and sometimes bareback, in rural East Texas.

Kim had a 1972 convertible Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, and we’d ride to Lufkin with the top down and turning up Journey, Golden Earring, Jerry Clower, AC/DC and sometimes a little Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys on the car stereo.

We thought we were the zenith of cool.

One visit to Lufkin involved watching a marathon of Friday the 13th slasher flicks (on VHS tapes; it was during the 1980s) at Lindy's house with his friends. One of the boys had to get home before midnight and not long after he walked out the door to get in his truck, we followed. You see, Lindy's house was way out in the country, and the sandy driveway to her house was a good quarter mile in length, winding around tall, East Texas loblolly pines. It was really spooky at night, so when this kid got about half way to the main road, we all jumped out at him. He didn’t hit any trees on his way out, but I’m pretty sure he had some serious upholstery cleaning to do when he got home.

I went to vacation Bible school, camp, and swimming lessons during the summer, like most children. But I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that got detention in VBS. It involved cow patties and firecrackers…and I promised my mother I’d never speak of it again.

The morning I wrote this column, my three year-old twin daughters bid me goodbye as they headed out with my mother on their own summertime adventure, and after work is done, I'll go with 'em. We’ve been going with Mom to visit her brother and his grandchildren in Tyler off and on this summer and it is all Lisa and Katie can talk about. I can see the next generation of summertime traditions has begun.

I hope they stop and smell the sunflowers along the way.

My daughters are nearly 10 years old now.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Performance art started in Texas and Gussie Nell Davis is proof positive thereof

My friends, Jeff and Heather Schrunk, have a daughter who is going off to school at Kilgore College and she's trying out to be a Kilgore Rangerette. So I'm posting this piece I wrote a couple of years ago in Allison's honor. We're proud of you, Allison!!!

I should probably save this piece for football season, but I happened to be in an area bookstore recently and saw a section on all things Texas featuring a coffee table book on the Kilgore Rangerettes…and I was inspired.

Kilgore College is in East Texas (Kilgore, to be precise), not far from Tyler where I grew up. I was raised steeped in the tradition of the Tyler Junior College Apache Belles (my mother’s best friend was one). Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler had the Southern Belles and it was a big deal to make the team.

The Kilgore Rangerettes, founded by Miss Gussie Nell Davis, were the first gals ever to form a drill team on the college level. And that, mis amigos, was the genesis of the world wide drill team movement.

But what is a drill team, y’all ask?

A drill team, as we understand it in Texas, is a dance team that creates routines based on dance movement rather than military drill. These teams usually do not usually carry anything and can perform to recorded music. They do that thing they do during halftime at football games.

The Kilgore Rangerettes were not Miss Davis’ first drill team, however. Miss Davis was a high school physical education teacher with a love for music and dance. In 1928, she gathered up the girls of Greenville High School, formed the “Flaming Flashes” and taught them do dance routines using batons, flags, drums, bugles and a variety of props…but mostly the girls just danced. While other schools had female drum and bugle corps or pep squads performing at football games, the Flaming Flashes were the first to twirl and dance.

Personal sidebar: my cousin Amy was a Greenville H.S. Flaming Flash back in the 1980s.

I’m practically kin to a legend.

Drill teams haven’t always been considered glamorous, however.

Miss Davis and her Rangerettes caught all kinds of hell in the 1970s about the drill team culture. Feminists and other critics pitched a fit at the perceived emphasis on physical attractiveness of drill team members, and the rigorous and authoritarian training involved. Critics spewed that drill teams, especially the Rangerettes, were a troupe of “sexist” and “mindless Barbie Dolls,” and their activity was inappropriate in a scholarly setting. Miss Davis fought back, saying there was nothing wrong in learning self-confidence, discipline, cooperation and the ability to perform precision dance, along with poise, etiquette, and personal grooming. Hard work, team work, and a “boss lady” were necessary ingredients to produce a dance performance judged better than that of the professional Radio City Rockettes. She said half-time and special-event performances by the Flaming Flashes or the Rangerettes gave young women the same acclaim usually reserved for male athletes and, once in awhile, the band. Miss Davis did fess up that she was “really a devil” in 1940 when she put the Rangerettes' skirts hemmed shamelessly at two inches above the knee. Other than that, the young women, according to her, were always dressed modestly and sex appeal never came up in (polite) conversation.

Those with a passing familiarity with drill teams may have heard of American Dance/Drill Team. Miss Davis and Dr. Irving Dreibrodt founded the organization in 1958 to provide a medium for professional instruction for dance and drill teams around the United States.

Miss Davis (and yes, I realize I’ve called her “Miss Davis” all the way through this; it’s a Texas thing, so y’all just deal with it) was honored by the Houston Contemporary Museum of Art in 1975 for creating a “living art form.” The Houston Contemporary Museum of Art is nothing to sniff at, even if Houston is the armpit of Texas. Getting that kind of honor is a very big thing. Houston may be Houston, but it’s also a big, ol’ city with some pretty big-name folks who know what art really is. I guess ol’ Gussie Nell was “performance art” before “performance art” was trendy…or trendy with the East and West Coast folks. Of course, I have a hard time putting Miss Davis up there with Jackson Pollock, Marina Abramovic or even the Blue Man Group…but there she sits, a pioneer in performance art alongside the big names, both famous and infamous.

Now, y’all can laugh about our crazy Texas obsession with drill teams and Miss Davis, but since they first high-kicked their way to popularity starting in 1940, the Rangerettes have appeared on the cover of Life Magazine and Paris Match, as well as having gone to more bowl games than the Dallas Cowboys.

Not bad for a troupe of gals in short skirts and cowboy hats.

Miss Davis died in 1993. I was standing in the newsroom of KLTV Channel 7 when the news came. Our producer, also raised in Tyler, ripped the copy from the Associated Press wire service and read it out loud to us. Right then and there we had a moment of silence for Miss Davis because even the non-Texans in the room knew that a legend had passed, and the world would never step-ball-change or stag leap the same way again.

The Rangerettes live on. You can find ‘em at www.rangerette.com. Their rivals, the Tyler Junior College Apache Belles have their own equally high-tech and glossy site at www.apachebelles.com. And while it won’t help you understand the phenomenon any better, at least you’ll understand yet one more thing held dear by Texans…and quite possibly learn to appreciate a well-executed high-kick.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

So I wrote my congressman...

After this week's BS down in Austin, I got good and mad. And I can't call myself a Republican anymore. Until it stops acting like, sounding like, and smelling like the "Good Ol' Boys Club," the GOP can kiss my sweet support good-bye. God knows, they shoulda kissed me on the mouth and bought me dinner first.

To: Congressman John R. Carter

6544B S. General Bruce Drive

Temple, TX 76502

From: Janna Zepp

Voter

Salado, Texas 76571

June 26, 2013

Subject: the image of the Republican Party

Sir:

I am one of your constituents, a Christian, and a sixth-generation Texan. Since 1983, when I turned 18 and was eligible to vote, I have voted in nearly every election, be it local, state, or federal. I vote. And it’s time you heard from me personally.

For 29 years, I have voted as a Republican, with very minor exceptions. This is the first year I stopped voting for anyone connected with the GOP. I am too embarrassed by what I see and hear from the Republican Party to consider myself a member anymore.

I don’t know that much about politics, but here is what I do know: While I don’t particularly care for the Democratic Party, and I am certainly not a fan of our president, right now, the Democrats are a far cry less offensive to women as the Republicans. They are mopping the floor with the GOP image-wise, Mr. Carter. And they might well be the majority in the state pretty soon if the Republicans do not wake up and see how women voters are leaving them in droves because of the Republican Party’s poor public image and perceived “War on Women.”

I’ve chosen not to cast my vote for Republican candidates in the future. In this past election, I pulled a straight Libertarian ticket. Why? Because as a woman, I no longer feel you have my best interests at heart. Members of your party consistently act like misogynistic buffoons in front of the media with no regard for their image or that of their party. They say exactly what they really think about women or they put their abject stupidity about women’s issues on display, and it is terrifying and embarrassing.

I am telling you this because I hope that you will tell your party brethren to wise up and quit shooting a hole in the foot of the party. Are women’s reproductive issues really worth sacrificing our 2nd Amendment rights or our personal wealth which will be lost to more taxes if the Democrats get a bigger toe-hold in Austin? Because you gentlemen have gotten all focused on how and when a woman has a child, and have turned off enough of the women in the State of Texas to the point that we don’t really care anymore that you are the party preserving our right to bear arms or to retain our hard-earned money. We see you as angry old white men bent on keeping us barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen because you think what is between our legs controls our intelligence and ability to make good decisions.

The issue of abortion does not affect me currently, but I have daughters. While I don’t view abortion as a means of birth control, I don’t want that option altered drastically or taken off the table for me or my girls by anyone, let alone a man who will never have to make the horrible decision himself. You will argue that the GOP does not want to end abortion entirely, and that you are trying to make things better for us. But that is NOT the perception your party has given us. And if you know anything about communications and public image, the perception IS the reality.

Pick your battles carefully, sir. I advise you, as your employer (for that is what we voters are) to leave the abortion issues alone, and urge your Republican brothers and sisters to take a good hard look at the image your party has nationally. Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, a fellow Republican, gets what I’m saying enough that he said it himself openly at the Republican Governor’s Association just last year. I’d hate to think that Louisiana might have one up on Texas in understanding its voters. But after this last debacle in Austin, it is apparent that you Texas boys just don’t get it. Rick Perry gets it least of all.

And now, the women’s vote is just one more thing, y’all just aren’t gonna get.

Don’t mess with Texas women’s rights. Don’t mess with our access to healthcare. And for crying out loud, know what y’all are talking about when the media turns their cameras on you.

Sincerely,

Janna Zepp

Texas voter