The first Texan I ever met was my mother.
Mom grew up in Corpus Christi, married young and then fled the state. In the next 20 years, she and my Dad—a Californian—returned three times to visit her parents.
Two of those visits I’m old enough to remember.
Both required us to drive from Bakersfield to Austin, through Blythe, slogging on to Phoenix and El Paso. We covered the endless miles to Austin on a two-lane road that shimmered in the sun and featured tons of tumbleweeds, jackrabbits, a desert tortoise or two, and tho occasional armadillo.
Because of the heat, Dad often traveled at night, so we were never sure what wildlife we’d passed unless it lodged in our grill.
West Texas makes Bakersfield CA look like paradise.
And there’s a Bakersfield TX on this most un-scenic route. Some 50 years later, this sister-city is still an armpit. I saw it this week and noticed only two changes: the highway is now four-lanes and instead of a single gas station, there’re two. I didn’t stop to see if they’d finally cleaned the bathrooms, but judging from the station’s appearance, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Even today, this stretch of Route 10 through Crockett County is a miserable drive. It’s a dull, never-ending, Disney-diorama of desolation, the sort of road that makes you want to impale your eyeballs on the tips of a Texas long horn.
So back in ’65 when we finally arrived in Austin, I’d formed a clear and uncharitable opinion of the “Lone Star State.” I gave it a well-deserved one-star rating.
Then I made the mistake of sharing this thought with Grandpa, a native Texan.
“Boy, Texas sure is hot and ugly,” I said.
His bright, “glad-to-see-y’all” smile faded.
“Son, there’s a lot more to Texas than El Paso,” Grandpa said.
“Like what?” I asked.
He responded to this challenge by narrowing his eyes and looking down his nose at me.
“Well, there’s the Bull Head Creek, Wild Horse Draw, and Pecan Bayou, just to get you started,” he said. “Then there’s our rivers: the Little Llano, the Brazos, the San Marcos, the Red, the Washita, and…” he spread his hands out for effect, “the Rio Grande.”
His eyes twinkled.
“All the Gulf’s best beaches are in Texas,” Grandpa said.
I nodded obediently, but had no clue what he was talking about. The only “Gulf” I in knew were the gas station signs that sprang up when we crossed the state line.
Then Grandpa pointed out the window.
“Yonder there’s Wonder World and Longhorn Caverns, Karuse Springs, Capote Falls, and Hamilton Pools,” he paused, squared his shoulders, and his smile returned.
He took a shot of coffee.
“Pardon me while I wet my whistle,” Grandpa said, and continued.
“Armadillos aren’t the only critters in the state, either,” he poked me in the chest. “Why, we’ve got all sorts of birds. There’s the widgeon, the gadwall, herons, boo-coo ducks, even eagles. Do you like reptiles? Why, we’ve got everything from alligator lizards to sidewinders.”
“And big game? Yessiree. Son. You’d be an old man if I went down the entire list.”
He paused, licked his lips, and waited for me to nod again, which I did.
“And it’s a natural fact that Texas has the biggest and best parks.”
He stopped without enumerating them. Perhaps he could see that my eyes had glazed over. Or maybe he decided not to press his luck. After all, everyone knew Alaska was bigger than Texas and, I assumed, had bigger parks too.
But I held back.
Mom had warned me not to utter the word “A-word” in Grandpa’s presence. He took a dim view of the 49the state. His position was simple and unequivocal: “If ya’ defrosted the dang thing,” he said, “the pitiful pile of what’s left would fit in my hip pocket.”
So Grandpa’s claims of Texas’ greatness went unchallenged, and his evidence went in one ear and out the other. But I guess he realized this because come Christmas, he gave me a three-year subscription to Texas Parks & Wildlife.
This shrewd move proved his point.
Each issue was filled with images of lush landscapes and happy hunters—Texas was, truly, more than just Highway 10 out of Hag Hill.
So I learned early on that there were two faces to Texas, and this lesson came to mind earlier this week when I was in “Keep It Weird” Austin. There, I toured the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.
Ah, Texas politics. The best form of not-traditional theater this side of mud wrestling.
Over the past few decades, my take on Texas was formed by the presidency of George “W” Bush, the “Decider,” a man who bore a distinct resemblance to Mad Magazine’s Alfred E Neuman. And in a way, “W” offered us all hope. He proves the popular belief that, in America, anyone can become president regardless or race, creed, color… or intelligence.
Of course, “W” isn’t Texas’s only contribution to the presidency. There were the other two one-term wonders. George H.W. Bush and Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Here I’ll follow my Mom’s lead and dismiss Bush-the-First as a pseudo-Texan pretender. Born in Milton, MA, Herbert-Walker was a carpetbagger who never bothered learning to talk like a Texan.
That leaves LBJ.
Sadly, my recollections of LBJ were equally uncharitable. From my teenage years I remember him as the man who ramped up Vietnam and started the draft I feared. He also consistently did stupid and crude things like picking up a dog by its ears or talking to reporters while he was seated on the toilet.
And the door was open.
LBJ was a big, ugly, “dumb Texan.” But, as I learned this week, he was much more than that.
It’s wise to view political narratives with skepticism. The history presented in a presidential library is, after all, the man’s last effort to spin his legacy. Yet even with that in mind, it’s hard to ignore what happened on his LBJ’s watch.
The third floor encapsulates the high and low points of the 36th president’s term. The exhibit opened with a tribute to John F Kennedy, a grim reminder of the assassination that propelled Johnson into the presidency. There also were photos of Vietnam and the anti-war protests. I’d expected all these, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the acute suffering of a man trapped in a war he’d inherited.
The exhibit makes it clear Johnson was a man of enormous intelligence and influence. He is described as “a force,” and “intimidating.” Pictures show him leaning into people, towering over them, and poking them with his finger.
Yet despite all this power, he found himself trapped in the “quagmire of Vietnam.”
“I can’t win, and I can’t get out,” Johnson is quoted as saying. One image in particular shows him hunched over a table, alone.
The display also included outraged letters from grieving parents blaming LBJ for the death of their sons.
Their anger is echoed in the chant that still rings in my ears. “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” I remember watching Cronkite on the CBS Evening News and shouting these very words to our TV.
But there was more to the story of LBJ.
On his watch began many civil rights protections we now take for granted. These include the Fair Housing and the Voting Rights Acts. Medicare and the War on Poverty were launched thanks to Lyndon. And many have forgotten that LBJ also championed Head Start, NPR, PBS, Upward Bound and the student loan program. The space program and NASA flourished under his watchful eye, and Johnson moved to protect consumers by pushing for seat belts. Ladybird, his wife, and he helped protect the California redwoods.
And more. Much more.
The walls of the presidential library were peppered with quotes, such as one drawn from his inaugural that insisted that the wealthiest nation on earth must do more for it’s poor.
And it wasn’t for show, either. He believed in the New Deal, The Fair Deal, and the Great Society. It’s true that he faltered and possibly failed as a president because of Vietnam, but he didn’t seek office to wage war in Southeast Asia.
“Some men want power to strut around the world and to hear the tune of ‘Hail to the Chief.’ Others want it simply to build prestige, to collect antiques, and buy pretty things. Well, I wanted power to give things to people—all sorts of things to all sorts of people, especially the poor and the blacks.”
Lydon Baines Johnson, quoted in “Flawed Giant,” by Robert Dallek
Looking at LBJ’s library was an eye opener, a reminder that people you intensly dislike, can have unappreciated virtues. I can’t say he has the appeal of more charismatic presidents, but I’ve learned that there’s more to Lyndon Baines Johnson than I saw in my youth.
Just like there’s more to the Lone Star State than the wastelands of West Texas.
And I know Grandpa would agree.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.