Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Clothes make the Texan: No white shoes after Labor Day

One of the hard and fast rules in Texas is the appropriateness of what one wears to the season during which one is wearing it, and I’m not just talking about western wear.

It’s a little known fact that true Texans care passionately about their personal appearance and wardrobe correctness.

Since I was a little girl, I had heard that it was unacceptable to wear white shoes after Labor Day weekend. Never mind that it was blazing hot until mid-October, white shoes were out from the first Monday in September onward.

Frankly, I think white shoes are wrong in any season, unless you’re a bride or a golfer.

Also, velvet can only be worn until Valentine’s Day, though I never have heard when it is acceptable to start wearing it. I’m guessing just after the first frost.

With regard to seasons, the dress code is really pretty easy. If it’s hot outside, dress for summer; if it’s cold outside, dress for winter. The end.

The bigger issue is not with seasonally appropriate attire, but with what can be considered appropriate attire at all.

In Texas and most of the South, what you wear is important. It is part of that first image you create when people meet you. I know all this sounds complicated and, honey, it is, but I’ll try to simplify it.

First, wearing pajamas outside of your home is unacceptable. I hear all the time from people blaming Texans for wearing their PJs to a popular discount retail department store. No self-respecting Texan would do that, so these folks are clearly from someplace else…like another planet. Wearing pajamas in public is not just tacky, it’s weird.

Second, flip-flops are for the swimming pool, beach or shower unless they’re designer sandals and you have a nice pedicure. Men should never wear flip-flops. As a matter of fact, big ol’ man-feet in any kind of sandals are just creepy, particularly if those sandals are worn with socks. Socks with sandals blow the whole point of wearing sandals in the first place.

Third, please comb your hair with a real comb and not with a pencil. I happened to catch this fella calling himself The Miz while watching World Wrestling Entertainment. This gentleman looks like he grooms himself with a gardening trowel and he hops around in skimpy spandex underpants while hollering, “I’M AWESOME!”

His mama must be so very proud.

Of course, The Miz is appropriately attired for his chosen profession: theatrical sports entertainment. It’s not like these wrestling fellas are negotiating world peace or the business deal of the century. I seriously doubt they walk around like that all the time.

Please understand that I come at all this with a slanted view. I belong to the school of thought that one’s handbag, shoes, belt and overcoat should match or complement each other. These items should all be the same shade of whatever basic neutral tone one is wearing. For example, I would never be caught dead walking out the door with a brown purse and black shoes unless the house was on fire.

In Texas, we have to be a little more casual in our warm weather attire, though this was not always the case. There was a time when people wore suit and tie or a dark wool business outfit regardless of the temperature. And they passed out on the pavement in droves. During sorority rush at the University of Texas in Austin in the 1960s, rushees went to parties dressed in dark cotton dresses, pearls, silk hosiery and high heels (back then it was Pappagallo shoes and not Prada that the girls were wearing). It might have been 89 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but you were expected to be very polished in your appearance. And don’t even think about breaking a sweat. Dress shields and girdles were popular back then. I’m guessing y’all don’t know what those are unless you’re over the age of 35 and only because your mother or your grandmother might have worn them.

In the 21st Century, we’ve wised up considerably. I don’t have a clue what the girls are wearing during rush now, but in the 1980s when I went through, we’d relaxed the rules enough that none of us were required to wear hosiery with our dresses, but we still wore our pearls and the color of our shoes matched the color of our hemlines.

Even though we’re more casual with the dress code these days, appearance still counts, especially with Texans. With that in mind, here is the basic dress code that makes sense to a well-heeled Texan:

1. No white shoes after Labor Day; September means earth tones, not spring and summer whites. Beige and taupe are still acceptable.

2. Your purse and your shoes should match in color and level of formality. Remember, leather handbag/leather shoes, velvet handbag/velvet or patent leather shoes, vintage tattoo handbag/leather, metal-studded spike heel boots, etc.

3. If you are wearing a printed item of clothing, make sure your accessories are of solid colors and complement what you are wearing, otherwise you’ll look like a walking Rorschach test. “Clash” does not just refer to a classic British punk rock band.

4. If your nail polish is chipping and peeling, take it off or go get a mani/pedi.

5. If it has sequins or rhinestones on it, save it for a cocktail party.

6. If you sleep in it, don’t wear it out in public.

7. Take your hat off when you go inside a building and when you sit down to eat.

8. If an item of clothing has so many holes in it that it’s holier than a brush arbor revival, throw it out.

9. One’s underwear should not peek out over the top of one’s pants waist. Why hasn’t this fad died yet?

10. Flip-flops are shower shoes. Period.

Other than these ten basic rules, your own personal style rules what you wear. Just make sure it’s in good taste.

Speaking of which, The Miz sort of reminds me of the Kip’s Big Boy mascot (you’d have to be from Dallas back in the 70s to know that one). All he lacks is a big ol’ hamburger on a tray and pair of red checkered coveralls; proof positive that for some, all of our taste is in our mouths.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Springtime in Texas means flowers, bugs, practicing survivalist techniques

In Texas, we’ve been enjoying spring since before the vernal equinox. Spring arrives in Texas often before March 1. This year was no exception.

If you are new to the Lone Star State, much of our springtime has probably confused you. Don’t worry; the state is confused too.Always has been. Frosty one minute, it’ll turn sweltering the next. And the humidity is stifling even in mild temperatures, but don’t worry. If you don’t like the weather in Texas, just wait a minute and it’ll change, or so we Texans have said since the first European explorers set foot on our coast some half a millennium ago.

Spring in Texas is heralded by the bluebonnets. You probably saw them pop out along about the first or second week in March. The bluebonnet is our state flower, by the way.

The season also is ushered in by a creepy blackbird many of us know as the grackle. There are three kinds of grackles in Texas: the common grackle, the boat-tailed grackle and the great-tailed grackle.

Grackles visit twice a year during migration, staying longer in the autumn than in the spring. You might have heard their strange, rattling, squeaking call reminiscent of the R2-D2 android in Star Wars. The birds flock in numbers that call to mind another film: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. They are unnerving to look at with those flat, yellow eyes. They’ll stare you down as they holler at you too. And considering the amount of guano they leave on cars, well…you’d think they really are just waiting for you to come out into the open so they can get to know you better and “leave an impression” on you.

The June bugs are coming, so prepare yourselves accordingly. If you have come home after dark and left your porch light on during the late spring of any given year, chances are good that you’ve been strafed by a squadron of the things trying to romance that incandescent bulb in your porch lamp.

My grandfather called them “Sunday-go-to-meetin’ bugs” because the insects liked to dive-bomb the congregations at brush arbor revivals. My grandfather (my father’s daddy) was a little boy when the brush arbor revivals were the fashion. He had more than one experience during which a June bug flew smack into his ear and stayed long enough to require a visit to the doctor to fish it out. He hated June bugs, and understandably so.

During my freshman year in high school, we studied June bugs briefly in our biology class. Coach Talkington asked the class, “What is the larval stage of a June bug?”

My classmate, Kyle Mayfield, raised his hand and responded gleefully, “APRIL!”

Rather clever, I thought.

Last spring, an errant June bug found a way into my house. My husband, Frank and I were on the couch watching television when the thing made itself known to us. It flew in concentric circles above us, trying to get cozy with one of our floor lamps before throwing itself into a moving ceiling fan blade and getting slammed into the wall.

That, my friends, was some high quality entertainment right there.

And that tell-tale odor that nigh knocks you over on a warm spring night is a skunk. My daughters call them “stunks” and I think that’s pretty accurate. My grandmother called them “pole cats.”

This year, we had a record number of skunks in our neighborhood. Coincidentally, I noticed that the owl we had roosting in the neighborhood had not left her usual castings of fur and bone underneath her roosts. Lots of skunks and no owl castings means the owl is no longer with us, either by death or by having found new territory. Owls (who have no sense of smell, obviously) keep the skunk population in check.

Spring is skunk mating season and May is the prime birthing season, so you might smell skunks a little more than usual now, since Mama is protecting her babies by spraying whatever comes near them. Considering that skunks do not see very well (no more than three feet in front of them), they’ll spray just about anything that spooks them. Neighborhood fire hydrants have been hit more than once.

If you get sprayed and weren’t prepared for the bombing, you can wash off in tomato juice. That’s the remedy my grandparents used when my grandfather would get hit. He’d take off to the barn at about 4 a.m. and come back at 4:10 a.m. reeking of skunk juice. It was a springtime ritual. His dogs would get hit nearly every day. I think it’s why my grandmother always had a tomato garden even after my grandfather died.

You should know that skunks carry rabies. Get your pets vaccinated and never try to pet a wild skunk. If one comes toddling up to you acting friendly and doesn’t turn it’s rump to you to spray, run.

Aside from the bugs, skunks, truckloads of bird poop and wacky weather, springtime in Texas is a little slice of heaven. It arrives earlier here than it does anywhere else and the wildflowers carry on a continual changing of the guard well into October. As for the June bugs, well...keep your ears covered, get a yellow “bug” bulb for your porch lights and keep those ceiling fans running so you can watch them demonstrate Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection as in “survival of the fittest”...or in this case, survival of the ones smart enough to dodge fan blades.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Cead mile failte to Texas, there are Celts here too

Texas is the last place you’d expect to find Irish people and yet one of our most famous Texans, Sgt. Audie Murphy, was of Irish heritage. I mean, you just can’t get more Irish than Murphy.

Texas is full of Celts. And folks, that’s “Celt” with a “k” sound. If you’re calling Celtic people “Sell-tick” people, you’re talking about a Boston basketball team, not an ancient population indigenous to Britain and most of northern Europe. Cead mile failte, or “a thousand welcomes” to you from the least known largest ethnic group in the Lone Star State.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, not a holiday traditionally associated with Texas, but there is a large Irish population here. There also are Scots, Welsh, Cornish and others of heritage from the original Seven Nations. If you are of Celtic descent, you know that the Seven Nations are actually six: Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales. The seventh disputed nation is actually two counted as one: Asturias and Galicia. Seems some want to argue whether the Iberian Celts of Spain count. As far as I’m concerned, they count. Galicia has its own version of bagpipes called Galician pipes and if you’ve ever heard them, you know that they give traditional Scottish pipes a real run for their reputation, so viva EspaƱa y’all.

Among the settlers of Texas were many Scots, Irish, Welsh and Cornish folks mixed in with the English-heritage Americans. Surnames such as Armstrong, Graham, Elliot, Maxwell, Kerr, Fraser and Johnston are numerous in Texas. Those surnames originated from the borders between Scotland and England, home to the most notorious cattle reivers in history. The “border reivers” or “steel bonnets” were the Scots who wore “trews” or pants because, frankly, it’s tough to ride a horse in a skirt. It was a fine English and Scottish tradition to jump over the border and steal each others’ cattle herds ad infinitum. The English would steal Scottish cattle. The Scots would go over and retrieve their cows, plus some of the English herd. The English would go reclaim their stolen property and take a little of the Scottish inventory. And on it would go…forever. The whole notion of Scots and sheep is actually a more recent one. Scots, for the record, are actually professional cattlemen. It was the English who originally favored sheep.

Take that as you will.

Our country and western music has its origins in Celtic music. You know that if you play a country and western song backwards, the protagonist in the song gets his trailer, truck and his dog back from his ex-wife. If you play an Irish ballad backward, the protagonist cheers up and wins the battle against the English.

Surnames such as Williams and Lewis are pan-British. You will find them all over Scotland, Wales, Ireland and even England. The names Davies, Davis and Powell seem to be the front runners as Welsh surnames. No one truly knows what an actual Welsh surname is, since the joke among the Welsh apparently is that they borrow everything. There’s a popular bumper sticker sold at highland games events that reads: “I borrowed being Welsh from my grandparents.”

The Welsh are also known for being excellent singers. It’s a little known fact that the British army got the Germans to surrender after a Welsh unit went about the German countryside terrorizing civilians with four-part harmony singing.

Singing and storytelling in the fashion of the Welsh is something that East Texans are particularly good at. The Welsh influence is heavy in that region.

The Welsh language is not prevalent, however. This might be a good thing. Ask for directions in Wales and you will wash a bucket of phlegm out of your hair for a week.

Proof of our Celtic heritage has survived linguistically in the Texas and Southern dialect. The enigmatic “y’all” is not native to America. I heard it on the streets of Glasgow during a trip to Scotland. It was everywhere. The Texans in the group were blown away. One evening, we were at a ceilidh, which is Gaelic for “party” and pronounced “KAY-lee.” The ceilidh dancing was amazing but not foreign. I recognized the steps from the square-dancing I learned in my seventh grade physical education class.

Earlier this month, Dallas Fair Park hosted the North Texas Irish Festival. The event is huge and worth visiting. It’s generally held the first weekend in March every year, so mark your calendar and plan to make the trip. The Irish stew in bolla bread is worth the drive. To get details, visit http://www.ntif.org/. The NTIF is not just about the Irish. All seven nations are represented.

Don’t worry about having missed NTIF, though. You can experience some Celtic culture at the many renaissance festivals in Texas. Believe it or not, Texas is home to at least five and possibly more. If you are visiting a renaissance festival for the very first time, choose either Scarborough Renaissance Festival in Waxahachie or the Texas Renaissance Festival in Plantersville. The two largest in the state give you an idea of Celtic and English life in the 16th century and a little bit of history with a whole lot of entertainment.

So who were the Celts? Fearsome warriors who managed to drive off the Romans when other nations of the Roman Empire could not. The emperor Hadrian, architect of the famed Pantheon in Rome, built a wall between Scotland and England to keep the Scots out. The Scots actually were Irish who migrated to Scotland and drove out the Picts. Therefore, it is fitting that the most decorated American Soldier in World War II was Sgt. Audie Murphy, a diminutive Texan with the heart of lion. Fearless in battle and the inspiration for an organization centered on the excellence of leadership, Murphy embodied what it means to be a warrior, a Texan…and a Celt.

So it is no surprise that Texas is home to the descendants of the Celts; all seven nations of them. Every Johnston, Davis, Reilly, Hocking, Napier, McRae and Rodriguez--and all their similarly named friends in Texas--can take pride in that.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

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

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.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Conan the Texan just doesn’t have the same ring

Conan the Barbarian is a Texan. He was born in Mission.

Texan Robert Ervin Howard was in Fredericksburg in 1932 when he got the idea to write a fantasy adventure. Allegedly, the surrounding landscape, as he saw it on a misty morning back then, inspired him to write his poem, “Cimmeria,” which he eventually wrote while in Mission.

South and Central Texas inspired Howard to create Conan and tales of his feats during the fictional Hyborean Age. Howard is considered the “father of the sword and sorcery subgenre,” only rivaled in preeminence by J.R.R. Tolkien in fantasy literature. So if you enjoy that brand of story such as that written by Michael Moorcock and Steven Erikson, and the art that goes with it such as that of artist Frank Frazetta, who created the Death Dealer painting and sculpture that III Corps uses as its symbol, you have a son of the Lone Star State to thank.

If you’re wondering about Stan Lee and the Stan Lee Media, Inc. comic book connection to Conan, I can’t tell you as much about that except that the character is, from what I have researched, based on the Howard character.

And I have not yet seen the film starring Jason Momoa. I’m not sure I’m ready to see a Conan that isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger. I remember seeing the 1982 film in the theater and, to me, that’s who Conan will always be. Besides that, how do you top a cast that includes James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow? And Sandahl Bergman’s “Valeria” puts any other female lead to shame. She remains one of my top ten memorable female film characters nearly thirty years later.

Why yes, I am a big, ol’ sword and sorcery film nerd. Why do you ask?

I have my fellow Texan, Robert Howard, to blame for my love of this stuff. He gave us Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror. I got to meet Kevin Sorbo who played Kull at a premiere of the film back in 1997. The film was a flop, but Sorbo rocked the premiere. It was there that I learned Sorbo worked briefly in Dallas as club security in a popular nightclub back during my college years. We joked about having possibly passed each other at the club without even knowing it. So, there’s another Texas connection to sword and sorcery pop culture.

When folks start to hem and haw about how weird Texas and Texans are, listing among our foibles our “redneckedness,” our twang and our penchant for pickup trucks, I have to chuckle silently to myself because they never mention Conan the Barbarian. When non-Texans start making fun of our obsession with guns, I refrain from saying, “Yeah, but you ought to see our collection of broadswords.”

Howard was born in Peaster on January 22, 1906. His mother ignited his love of poetry and writing, and, considering the Texan penchant for tall tales, it was only a matter of time before he put pen to paper and created something epic. He loved boxing and bodybuilding, too, making him something of an intellectual athlete, so you can kind of see how Conan came to be.

Howard traveled Texas, visiting cowtowns and boomtowns, talking to Civil War veterans, cowboys and not a few unsavory types for character inspiration. In my research of Howard, I learned that in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft in October 1930, Howard wrote, “I've seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil whole-sale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers and gangsters in a matter of months.”

That’s a poetic turn of phrase if ever I read one. And it precisely summed up Texas in the late 1920s and early 1930s too. If you know your Hyborean Age and Cimmeria, then you can clearly see some parallels. Add to that Howard’s love of Greco-Roman and Celtic mythology (the fictional god Crom is based on the Celtic god, Crom Cruach of pre-Christian Ireland), and you’ve got one big whopper of a good yarn.

He found an outlet for his Conan and Kull the Conqueror stories in the aptly-named 1930s pulp magazine, Weird Tales. The content of the publication was strange and macabre, which made it one of the classic, best-remembered pulps, mostly because of the influence of Howard and his two contemporaries, H. P. Lovecraft (y’all are probably familiar with Cthulu) and Clark Ashton Smith.

Sadly, Howard died before he could truly enjoy the fruits of his creation. I speculate that if he had lived, he would have gone on to greater success and Texas might have been known for something other than oil wells and cowboys.

Texas definitely inspires the imagination. The next time you travel through Central and South Texas, take a look around and picture Conan the Cimmerian while you recite this from Howard’s work, Queen of the Black Coast written in 1934: “Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content.”

As for me, I choose to look around the Lone Star State and remember Howard as his neighbor in Cross Plains, Elsie Burns, remembered him when she first met him and his dog back in 1915 when he was about nine years old. He said, “I'm Robert Howard, I'm sorry if we frightened you. Patches and I are out for a morning stroll. We like to come here where there are big rocks and caves so we can play make-believe. Someday I am going to be an author and write stories about pirates and maybe cannibals. Would you like to read them?”

I think to myself, “Yes, Robert. Yes I very much would. And I very much have enjoyed reading them, because when I was a child in Texas, I, too, was inspired by rocks and caves, and I dreamed of pirates and barbarians and cannibals…and definitely writing all about them.”

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Casseroles make the move to Texas a little easier, a lot tastier

This column originally appeared in the Fort Hood Sentinel in September 2010, back when I was writing for the U.S. Army. I miss my soldiers. I learned a lot from 'em. I hope they're all doing well, wherever they are.

On the morning that I penned this column, I was sitting in traffic behind an SUV that had a Virginia license plate on it and I got to thinking about the people on and around Fort Hood. It seems like everyone is from someplace else around here. Once in awhile, I run into someone who was born and raised in Killeen by people who also were born and raised in Killeen. People who actually are from Killeen are rare.

This is a trend that is not special to Killeen/Fort Hood. Rarely is anyone in Texas actually from Texas anymore. Native Texans are about as rare as a Texan who is still a real Dallas Cowboys fan in the post-Tom Landry Dark Ages of the Dastardly Jerry Jones.

Texans started leaving Texas about the same time as the great 1970s Texas oil boom that brought so many Yankees to the state. It was a collective “there goes the neighborhood” and many Texans just up and moved out of state to get away from the New Yorkers that showed up.

Most of us went to Montana, Wyoming and Washington State. I met more Texans in Bozeman, Mont., Casper, Wyo. and Seattle, Wash. than I ever have in Texas.

Then the 1980s came, the oil market bottomed out, the (darned) Yankees left and the nice ones stayed. And our Texas culture changed again.

The move from an agrarian, rural culture to a more urban one accelerated. And everyone “hailed from” or was “a native of” anywhere but Texas.

We tease non-Texans a lot about not being from Texas. We token multi-generational, native Texans that are left love to give y’all grief about just about everything because y’all turn such a lovely shade of purple when you get mad. But the truth is that we don’t mind you coming here at all. Texans love company.

Killeen and Fort Hood are one big highway game of “spot the plate” which involves counting the out-of-state license plates on cars. Since I moved to Central Texas, I’ve seen plates from all fifty states at least three times. It’s fun to comment to passengers in my car about the fella that drove all the way from Vermont just to sit in front of us during the lunch rush from post.

I got to thinking about people being from someplace else and I remembered what it felt like to live away from the state I call home: the loneliness, the “foreign culture” feeling, the being away from friends and family, and the whole unpleasant “otherness” we experience when we’re gone from all that is familiar.

Moving is never fun. Moving in the Army is constant. While I’ve never been in the Army or married to an active duty Soldier, I get what you must be feeling. So when I’m driving in Central Texas traffic, I try to cut the “foreigners” some slack and drive Texas friendly. Even when the young man from Illinois cut me off in traffic and shot me the single-finger salute for reasons known only to him, I smiled and waved and said, “One day kid, you’ll be older and wiser because somebody in a Texas Department of Public Safety vehicle will teach you some good ol’ Texas manners.”

Obscene gestures in Texas will get you arrested, especially if you do it in the direction of Texas law enforcement, so y’all keep your birds cooped for your own safety.

Sitting in traffic behind “Virginia,” I spotted a bumper sticker proudly announcing a member of the Copperas Cove High School Senior Class of 2013. I wondered about that high school student and the friends in Virginia he or she left behind. I wonder about how she or he took the news about moving. And my heart sank a little. It couldn’t have been good.

Sometimes I hear folks say, “I hate Texas!” and that hurts my heart. I’m pretty sure it’s not Texas that they hate, but the fact that they loved where they were before. I understand that.

There is an old Southern tradition of taking your neighbors a casserole or a pie whenever there is a life-changing event in their lives. As Paula Deen once said in a radio interview I heard awhile back, “If someone gets married, you take ‘em a pie. If someone has a baby, you take ‘em a pie. If someone dies, you take the family a pie. If you have new neighbors, you take ‘em a pie. Nothing says love like bringing someone a gift that required your time and effort to make.”

Miss Paula is right.

The way I have it figured, we got about upteen-thousand folks moving into and out of the Great Place in any given year. I can’t make 26,000 casseroles, but I can share one recipe. I hope you enjoy it; it’s good for a church supper, potluck or as a make-ahead meal for a football game. Welcome to Texas, enjoy the casserole and if you have a question about Texas or Texans, please shoot me an email at (janna.casstevens@gmail.com). Your question just might end up a topic in this column.

This is one of my favorite casseroles and one I learned to make from Southern Living magazine after moving to Salado, about 125 miles from friends and 185 miles from my family. Just making it brought me a lot of comfort. I hope y’all enjoy it too.

Caramelized Onion Macaroni and Cheese

1 (8-ounce) package large elbow macaroni

2 tablespoons butter

2 large onions, halved and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon sugar

1 (16-ounce) block white Cheddar cheese, shredded

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Parmesan cheese

32 saltine crackers, finely crushed and divided

6 large eggs

4 cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Prepare macaroni according to package directions; set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sliced onions and 1 teaspoon sugar. Cook, stirring often, 15 to 20 minutes or until onions are caramel colored.

Layer half each of cooked macaroni, onions, cheeses, and cracker crumbs in a lightly greased 13- x 9-inch baking dish. Layer with remaining macaroni, onions, and cheeses.

Whisk together eggs and next 3 ingredients; pour over macaroni mixture.

Stir together remaining half of cracker crumbs, 2 tablespoons melted butter, and, if desired, pecans. Sprinkle evenly over macaroni mixture.

Bake at 350° for 1 hour or until golden brown and set. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Memories of my father

My father is the inspiration of my blog about Texas. When I wrote Tex Messages for the U.S. Army paper, The Fort Hood Sentinel, it was his voice I heard in my mind as I wrote. Much of my writing was, and is, based on some of the things he taught me during my childhood.

My father was Dr. Kenneth Rodgers Casstevens at the University of Texas at Tyler. He was a college professor, complete with the sweater and the tie that match the stereotype. His students called him “Mister Rogers” because he did rather resemble Fred Rogers in that ensemble.

When he wasn’t dressed for work, Dad was in his jeans, work boots, and a straw cowboy hat, working in the yard or the house. Or welding on something he needed for whatever it was he was doing.

My first visit to the Alamo was with my father. He had been a Texas history teacher in the beginning of his educational career. On day trips to Austin, we would stop on the way at the Stagecoach Inn in Salado to eat, and he would tell me about how people traveled around Texas in the early days of the Republic, and how people stopped in Salado and had for nearly 200 years.

“Texas was a country first. Then it was a part of the United States,” he said. "We are not like other Americans." Like my fellow Texans, I have not forgotten that.

When I came home from school angry at the rudeness of a boy in my class, my father was the one who said, “He was brought up in New York. They aren’t known for having manners. But then again, it could just be that he doesn’t know any better. I teach with his father. The apple seldom falls far from the tree. I think that is how they must speak to one another up there. I’ve never met one that wasn’t like that. But I will say this: you always know where you stand with them. They might be rude, but they do tend to be honest. I appreciate that part.”

My classmate’s father was the man who, in faculty meetings at the university, opened every comment with, “Your problem is that the way you do things in Texas is wrong. In New York…”

Fed up with the man’s rudeness, my father quietly said, “Well, you know, you could go home to New York. We’d all pitch in and help you pack. I’ll buy the pizza for the lunch break. I think we can get you ready to go in a day.” He was gone within six months, home to New York.

I have since had the pleasure of meeting some very gracious, charming New Yorkers.

They have made Texas their permanent home. Seldom do stereotypes apply consistently, I am happy to report.

My father was brutally honest. If he thought I was slipping in some way with regard to upright moral behavior, he’d point it out and would not waste time with tact. It bordered on the cruel at times, but he felt he had a reason to do it. I was in the fourth grade when I lied about my homework and I forged my mother’s signature on a teacher’s note that I knew would get me in trouble if she read it. Honesty came at a price at my house. But dishonesty came at a higher one. And teachers talk to parents.

I got in the car when he picked me up from school and his first words to me were, “How do you sleep at night?” I will spare you the rest of what he said. It was as ugly as it gets and I expected to get thrashed pretty hard when I got home. But this time, he handed me the Tyler phone book and told me to count the number of people listed with the names of Smith (1,427) and Jones (1,608). Then he had me count the number of people with the name Casstevens. There was only one listed, and that was us.

“Remember that, because people remember your name. You have to remember who you are and who you come from. People will remember if you are untrustworthy. And right now, you very much are.”

My father valued integrity above all else. He was very slow to trust others. Displays of affection or emotion made him uncomfortable. He was not one for deep, personal conversations about feelings. But he would go on at length about the virtue of being someone others could look to for strength and courage.

Dad had a dry, clever sense of humor. He loved practical jokes. April Fool’s Day was his favorite holiday. His secretary, Carolyn, was a saint. Every year for 18 years, she endured his planting rubber snakes or plastic cockroaches all over her office for her to “discover.” He’d hide them and wait for her to scream, which I am sure she did. They were buddies (as much as you could be with my father if he allowed you) for all those years they worked together and into his retirement.

Dogs were the only “people” who had my father’s deep trust. He liked them better than people. They are, after all, faultlessly loyal, completely honest, and they don’t talk trash about you behind your back. Of course, he could be himself with them.

He loved “westerns.” Movies, books, or televisions shows, my father watched them all. As a boy, he’d follow the serials in the movie theaters, starring Hoot Gibson, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. He memorized Gene Autry’s “Ten Commandments of the Cowboy” which are:

1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.

3. He must always tell the truth.

4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.

5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.

6. He must help people in distress.

7. He must be a good worker.

8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.

9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.

10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

He adored science fiction with the same passion. I think part of his love affair with computers sprung from that. He believed that computers would change the way we communicate. So in 1980, he requested to purchase computers for the media center at the University of Texas at Tyler. The request was denied, so he resubmitted the request listing the computers instead as “media hardware.” The request was granted, and UT Tyler got their first computers.

“It is, indeed, after all ‘hardware,’” Dad said.

I came to believe that being a Texan was synonymous with who my father was as a man.

My father often quietly stood up for what was right even when it was unpopular to do so. He backed his instructors in his department at the university when they were right and the administration was wrong. He refused to compromise his values. He never saw the need to put on any other image than his own genuine one.

My father and I were never close. He only ever once told me he loved me that I recall, in an email. I wish I had kept it, but at the time, we were at odds with one another, and I trashed it.

He would die a year later from cancer after writing it. His last words to me the last time we saw each other were, “I hope you know how much your mother loves you.”

I was not with him when he died. The regret runs deep. But even had he lived, we would not be any closer. It was not possible to get close to him. He was who he was: intense, private, potently angry when provoked, honorable, stoic, and the eternal cowboy, though he was a white collar professional all of his adult life.

The best way to describe my father is that he was much like Mark Harmon’s character Jethro Gibbs of the television show, NCIS. I cannot watch the show without seeing my father in every mannerism, style of speech, and facial expression. Had he been buried rather than cremated, I would have asked that his only epitaph be: “This was the last honest man the world will ever know.”

A friend of my father’s from their college days wrote my mother, upon learning of my father’s death, this:

“Since receiving your message on the passing, I have spent some time reflecting on my memory of him. Believing that Ken built on the personal values he demonstrated in the '60s, he left a legacy that is certainly to be admired. Ken's life was , anchored in integrity...no room for compromise... honesty...gentle...the ultimate professional...trustworthy... holding values that made up the America we like to remember. In the words of J. Frank Dobie, ‘He would do to ride the river with.’ He was a faithful dependable friend.”

It’s bluebonnet time in Texas

The little spots of blue and white along our Texas highways signal springtime in Texas well before the vernal equinox ever happens.

It’s bluebonnet time in Texas.

As pretty as those little flowers are, get ready for some traffic headaches as tourists pull over to photograph their children and grandchildren in fields of bluebonnets. Be patient; I plan to do the same thing with my twin daughters when I get the chance.

I think it’s fitting that our state’s flower blooms near Texas Independence Day, which is observed every March 2.

I’ve read that the bluebonnet of Texas is actually five flowers. Apparently, there was quite a fight in the Texas legislature for most of a century over which of the many types of bluebonnets should represent Texas. At last, they settled on five:

Lupinus subcarnosus, the original champion, grows naturally in deep sandy loams from Leon County southwest to LaSalle County and down to the northern part of Hidalgo County in the Valley. It is often called the sandy land bluebonnet. The flower reaches peak bloom in late March and does not last in clay soils.

Lupinus texensis, the favorite of tourists and artists, provides the blue spring carpet of Central Texas. It is widely known as THE Texas bluebonnet. The flowering stalk is tipped with white and hits its peak bloom in late March and early April. It is the easiest of all the bluebonnets to grow.

Lupinus Havardii, also known as the Big Bend or Chisos Bluebonnet, is the largest of the Texas bluebonnets, growing up to three feet. It is found on the flats of the Big Bend country in early spring and is tough to grow outside its natural habitat. Lupinus concinnus is a tiny flower, from 2 to 7 inches, with flowers which combine elements of white, rosy purple and lavender. Commonly known as the annual lupine, it grows in the Trans-Pecos region, blooming in early spring.

Lupinus plattensis ranges from the north into the Texas Panhandle’s sandy dunes. It is the only perennial species in the state and grows to about two feet tall. It normally blooms in mid to late spring and is also known as the dune bluebonnet, the plains bluebonnet and the Nebraska Lupine.

Confused? Yep. Me too. And it gets more confusing.

There are two other types of bluebonnets: white and pink.

Once in awhile you’ll stumble across an albino bluebonnet. It’s kind of like finding a shamrock in the midst of regular clover. In the midst of a sea of blue, there will be six or seven white ones clumped together like a bleach stain on a pair of jeans…except that it’s pretty.

Pink bluebonnets are another matter. Many have been carefully bred and cultivated to generate a hue that ranges from palest pink to almost red in color. Why we’d want to mess with perfection, I don’t know, but some folks just have to have pink. There is, however, a wild pink bluebonnet that grows not far from the Alamo, and it’s only in that area that these rare flowers bloom.

The legend that surrounds the wild pink bluebonnet is that the ground was stained with the blood of the heroes of the battle for Texas independence, March 2, 1836. The flowers that grew where the blood flowed came up pink, becoming a symbol for the struggle to survive and a memory of those who died so that Texas could be free.

So when you look at that sea of blue with the occasional white patches and the rare pink variety, maybe next time you’ll see more than natural Texas beauty; you’ll see the fierce independence of Texans and the fight for human rights and dignity. And it’s then that you’ll truly see Texas.