Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Friday, July 11, 2014

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

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

It almost was German.

Ja, you read that right. German.

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

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

He was right, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summertime in Texas means sharks, jellyfish, sunburns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What constitutes the Texas Hill Country?

Awhile back I read a story about the Shiner Bock Brewery in Shiner. The brewery’s website touts it as being located in the Texas Hill Country. Shiner is in Lavaca County. Lavaca County is more Gulf Coast Plains than Hill Country. Folks, Shiner is NOT in the Texas Hill Country, even though many would disagree, saying that Shiner at least has “Hill Country” attitude, whatever that is.

So just where IS the Texas Hill Country?

Twenty-five counties, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, are considered officially “Texas Hill Country.” They are:

• Bandera

• Bell

• Blanco

• Burnet

• Comal

• Coryell

• Crockett

• Edwards

• Gillespie

• Hays

• Kendall

• Kerr

• Kimble

• Lampasas

• Llano

• Mason

• McCullouch

• Menard

• Real

• San Saba

• Schleicher

• Sutton

• Travis

• Val Verde

• Williamson

Good news, Salado. We are officially a part of the Texas Hill Country.

Yeah…I don’t feel like that’s true either, but the TPWD says so, and I’m not gonna argue.

What makes up Texas “Hill Country?”

Karst topography. Nope, I didn’t know what that was either so I looked it up. The official-sounding definition is a landscape shaped by the dissolution of a layer or layers of soluble bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone or dolomite.

Due to subterranean drainage, there may be very limited surface water (got that right), even to the absence of all rivers and lakes (except for all the ones we Texans dug ourselves). Many karst regions display distinctive surface features, with sinkholes or dolines being the most common. However, distinctive karst surface features may be completely absent where the soluble rock is mantled (huh?), such as by glacial debris (oh for one of those glaciers now that summer is coming), or confined by a superimposed non-soluble rock strata. Some karst regions include thousands of caves, even though evidence of caves that are big enough for human exploration is not a required characteristic of karst. All continents have regions with karst topography except Antarctica. Well, okee dokee then. We meet all those criteria. We share geologic features with areas in the world such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, France and Ireland.

Cool. I can go to the Hill Country and see the world without ever leaving Texas.

What, then, is “Hill Country” attitude?

I don’t know. My best guess is that unpretentious, laid-back, easy going, friendly, come-as-you-are personality so many Texans have anyway. If that’s confined to the Hill Country, then we’re all from the Hill Country. The exceptions are the big city folks who usually are from some place else anyway. I’m not saying that’s bad; just different.

What is so special about the Texas Hill Country?


No, really. Everything really is better in the Texas Hill Country. It’s not as humid. There is an abundance of wildlife. Life in the Hill Country is not nearly as hectic as in the big cities or even the small towns of other Texas regions. Every morning when you walk out your front door, the view is generally beautiful. Okay, look beyond your subdivision. Drive around our area and really look at the hills surrounding us. Copperas Cove has the Five Hills in its city seal, honoring the area in which it sits: the Five Hills Area. Look beyond the urban (folks, Killeen/Fort Hood and Temple/Belton are a larger municipality in this area) and really see what I’m writing about.

It’s beautiful.

I think our position in the Hill Country is why so many soldiers at Fort Hood decide to retire here. Besides the lower cost of living in Texas, this area has everything to offer, including proximity to Austin and the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Just take Highway 190 east and go north on Interstate Highway 35. In less than three hours, you’re in D/FW. Take Highway 195 south and you’re in Austin in under an hour. That’s pretty decent drive time to civilization…by Texas standards anyway.

If you want excellent examples of Texas Hill Country towns, the ones that come to my mind are Fredericksburg, Lampasas, Marble Falls, Dripping Springs, Boerne, Kerrville and little ol’ Ingram.

And then there is Luckenbach ( The weather is perfect for a bike ride (and I don’t mean a Schwinn) over to Luckenbach for some live music and other amusements. Just be sure to wear your helmet, don’t imbibe before you drive and carry a toothbrush to get the bugs out of your teeth.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remembering Texas as it was from a Texan’s perspective

Many of you aren’t old enough to remember drive-in theaters. You probably don’t remember life without computers, cable television or cell phones.

Most of you never set foot in Texas until just a few years ago, if not later.

I want to share with you the Texas that I knew growing up; the Texas I remember and try to preserve when I write this blog.

I remember the early 1970s in Texas. We just didn’t seem to have any of the same experiences of the rest of America. Not that I can recall, anyway, though I do remember a hippie or ten in Austin back then. They’re still there.

I remember a kinder, gentler Texas. It probably wasn’t—in fact, I’m certain it wasn’t--but that’s what I remember. Men still wore hats and tipped them when a woman passed them on the street. It was a straw hat in the spring and summer; a gray felt in the fall and winter.

I remember when we were more isolated; when the towns and cities of this state were spread farther apart than they are now. I remember a time when Interstate Highways 20, 35 and 45 were banked by mostly farmland and small towns. I remember riding at night in the car with my parents on a trip to my grandmother’s house and seeing nothing but stars in the sky. No light pollution for miles. Just stars. And in the daylight, the view was cattle, cotton and corn.

I remember life before convenience stores, when it was common to stop at a little country store with hardwood floors, screen doors and fountain drinks. Right up until the mid-1980s, they weren’t hard to find.

I remember going to the barn at my grandmother’s farm in Greenville and seeing my grandfather’s 1956 Ford parked there as if it were waiting for him to come start it up. It was two-tone turquoise and white. My uncle has it now. He got it up and running a few years ago. But my memories always will be of that car lovingly tucked away in the shelter of the tin barn next to the feed room.

I remember the smell and feel of raw cotton in that barn too. I remember it, all gathered up in the back of a wood-frame chicken wire trailer, about to be hauled to the gin.

I remember life before WalMart. We had Gibson’s. And it had everything. At least, to us it did.

We didn’t have fancy coffee shops, but we had city cafes and Southern Maid Donuts.

Dairy Queen was the social center of every small town.

I remember drive-in theaters. I went to see movies at them with my parents. The last one I went to was in Kerrville. I was performing at the Presbyterian Church camp, Mo Ranch, with students in our drama department from Austin College back in the summer of 1988. We went to the Bolero Drive-In when we weren’t scooting a boot at Crider’s in Ingram near the rodeo arena on a Saturday night after our shows. The theater owner did all the public address announcement himself:

“We’d like to welcome all y’all to the BO-LAIR-O Drive-In. Please feel free to visit our concession stand at any time deyurin’ the fee-chur presentation. The BO-LAIR-O is proud to present all first-release films for your viewin’ pleasure.”

I remember shelling peas on the front porch or in the kitchen with my grandmother. Of all my memories of her, the most precious are of her cooking. I remember that she got her first microwave oven along about 1978. We baked a cake in it one evening and it came out tasting pretty good.

“Not bad,” she said. “But I think I’ll just keep making them in a regular oven the way I always have.”

I remember when Tom Landry still coached the Dallas Cowboys. I remember Roger Staubach and Don Meredith. And, of course, Bob Lilly.

And I remember the Houston Oilers. You know them now as the Tennessee Titans.

I remember colleges and universities before many of them were absorbed into either the University of Texas or Texas A&M systems.By the way, that’s not a bad thing. I’m just saying that I remember. East Texas State University was where my parents went to college. They met there sometime around 1958. They married in 1961. The university is now Texas A&M University at Commerce.

I will always think of it as ETSU.

I remember standing at the ceremony when Texas Eastern University became the University of Texas at Tyler. My father was a professor there. And I got to see then-governor Bill Clements in person.

And I still think of UT-Tyler as TEU some four decades later.

I remember being taught that a person’s value was not in how much money they made or what they did for a living, but in “who” they were as a person. Their character and that of their family meant more than anything.

“Money might buy happiness. It might buy food, clothes and shelter,” my father said. “But it cannot buy class or honor. A man with money is just as likely to be without ethics as a man without.”

I remember Texas when there were more of us: homegrown, homespun and at home with the values of honesty, strength and courage. American values that transcend status and state boundaries.

So many of us native Texans are gone now, that those of us who remain are left to try to preserve some memory of Texas as it was.

Even as our state changes for the better due in part to the influx of outsiders, we hold it dear and try to preserve it as we remember it: larger than life and legend with stunning simplicity, stark beauty and…well, I just don’t really know what else to say. It was Texas. It is Texas. And, I pray, it will always be Texas.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tales of tough Texans are woven throughout Texas military, civilian history

Texans are tough as tanks and about as subtle.

In June 2011, Monique Lawless challenged three thieves who ran out of a Houston Walmart with a case of “adult recreational beverages.” As a clerk stood by helplessly, watching the men leave, Lawless shouted, “Do something! They’re leaving!” When Lawless saw that no one was doing anything to stop the three men, she told the clerk to hold her purse and she ran after them, jumped on their car, kicked the windshield as hard as she could and hollered for help. They sped off, laughing, and dragged her a few feet before she let go of the car.

Within minutes, a police helicopter found the car, chased it with the help of Texas Department of Public Safety officers and state troopers were able to arrest all three men.

Lawless, who got pretty banged up and had two black eyes to show for it, said, “I'm tired of it. Our society needs to stand up and say, ‘This is not right. We are not going to put up with it. You will be punished.’”

Lawless also said that, while she probably won’t be trying to physically intervene anymore, she would never stop doing what’s right because she’s fed up with people just “looking the other way when something bad happens.”

In March 2009, then-65 year-old Val Renfro of Fort Worth had finished shopping and was getting into her car when a man shoved her, grabbed her purse and ran off.

Val pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911.

On the 911 tape, Val can be heard shouting, “Put it on the hood, now! You give me my purse, right now.” She then hit the purse-snatcher with her car.

Also heard on the recording, the man said to her that he will return the purse if she rolls down her window. “Like hell I will,” she responded.

At one point, the purse snatcher got away, but other people joined the chase and eventually cornered the man near a movie theater.

“I was madder than hell is what I was,” Renfro said. “I didn't think about anything else except, ‘He’s not going to get away with this.’”

Those are just a couple of examples of what it means to be “Texas tough.”

Our legendary fortitude goes back years. Some would say it goes back centuries.

Lieutenant Harry Buford was actually born in Cuba…and female. Buford was actually Loreta Janeta Velázquez, and while she lived sporadically in Texas, it was in Texas that she wrote her memoirs. She served in the Confederate army and fought as a man until she was wounded and a doctor discovered her secret. She was discharged, only to take up the disguise again and re-enlist. This was a woman determined to fight. For her courage, fortitude and downright eccentricity, she qualifies as a Texan.

Doris Miller was a man named for a woman because the midwife who delivered him was convinced the baby was going to be a girl. Born in Willow Grove, near Waco, Miller grew up to be the first African American hero of World War II.

Miller’s ship was among those berthed on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese struck air, land, and sea forces of the United States. He was picking up dirty laundry when the attack began, and rushed to the deck to learn what was happening.

After helping the ship’s wounded captain, Miller took over a deck gun, though he had never been trained in its use, and started firing at the Japanese fighter planes that continued to strafe and drop bombs on the anchored American ships.

Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for valor beyond his training and assignment. Later, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier, Liscome Bay, as a cook.

The Liscome Bay was torpedoed and lost while engaged in action in the Gilbert Islands on November 24, 1943, and he was lost at sea. Miller was honored by associating his name with the destroyer escort USS Miller.

Eddie Fung was born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but he dreamed of being a cowboy in Texas. Fung moved to Texas at age 16 and went to work on various ranches north and west of Midland. Anybody that determined to be a Texan deserves the honor, so I’ll count him as one of ours. When World War II happened, Fung joined the Texas National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division. Fung proved to be one of the toughest Texans ever, in that he survived as a prisoner of war in the Japanese POW camps from 1942-1945 through situations that killed most of his fellow American Soldiers. Last I heard, Fung is alive and well and married to Dr. Judy Yung, a retired professor from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and she wrote his biography, The Adventures of Eddie Fung, Chinatown Kid, Texas Cowboy, Prisoner of War.

Texas history is full of Texans, native and naturalized, who have similar tales to tell. Were I to write about them all, this blog would have a higher word count than a James Michener novel.

If it’s true that a people make a place, then that’s what it is about Texas: the people, whether native or naturalized. It’s the fortitude of the people that inspired the slogan, “Don’t mess with Texas,” as a statewide anti-littering campaign that eventually became the mantra of every Texan for just about everything.

We come by our courage not by bravado, but out of necessity. Our history shows over and over again ordinary people suddenly thrown headfirst into impossible circumstances and forced to fight or flee. It was Texan and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz who summed up Texan fortitude best when he said, “God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right even though I think it is hopeless.”

I have to chuckle at our reputation for courage and toughness. Honestly, I don’t think that being a Texan is what makes us that way. I think it’s broader than that. I think it’s because we’re Americans. We have a collective history of fighting for our freedom and independence. We’re still in that fight and probably always will be.

But considering who we are—as a people—well…I think we’ll come out just fine.