The ugly truth about Texas

Abilene, Abilene,
Prettiest town I’ve ever seen… – Waylon Jennings, “Abilene”

Hold it right there, Hoss. We need to talk.

I’ve been a proud and happy Texan for more than six years now so I figure I can step out and tell the one truth about this wonderful state nobody ever mentions.

Ain’t nothing pretty about it. Not in the conventional landscape sense, anyway.

The Western singers croon about the stars at night and yellow roses. The closest anyone ever comes to praising the view of the land is found in romantic visions of historic cattle drives and ancient buffalo herds. Even then nobody ever says the land is pretty. It ain’t. It’s a harsh land with cruel challenges.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: in the entire, monster size state of Texas there is only one natural lake, Lake Caddo. And half of that is in Louisiana.

Big Bend National Park

Oh, I know there are prettier parts of Texas than what I’ve seen so far. I’ll admit I’ve never been to the glorified Big Bend National Park but I’ve seen all the pictures Google has to offer and while it does seem to possess a lot of fascinating geological features there is nary a tree to be found and many of the pretty swimming holes in the pictorials are dry much of the year. When they’re not dry they are cautions for swimmers because they can contain deadly water moccasins and other natural vermin.

So, enjoy the pictures but keep your kids out of the water.

I took this at sundown just outside of Westin, Texas. Gorgeous sky but the land is unremarkable.

Most of the pretty photos you see of Texas are taken at sunrise or sundown. Texas magazines and blogs are full of sunrises and sunsets. I’ve posted many myself. I dare say you can take a picture of the sun on the  horizon in the Sahara Desert, the Australian Outback or even Nevada and it will look lovely. That’s an astronomical effect, not the land itself.

Don’t misunderstand, I love Texas, I really do. More than anything else Texas is an attitude, a can-do spirit worn on the relaxed, happy smiles of everyone you meet. In Texas we don’t want no gubmint interference. We’ll give you the shirts off our backs, a good meal and a place to sleep. Tomorrow you’re on your own and we’ll wish you good luck.

That’s the Texas I know and love.

Texas kids are happy. well-behaved and polite.

People of all ages and races tip their hats and give you a howdy. They hold open the door for you at the Mini Mart. They call you Sir and Ma’am even though they don’t have to. They’re always smiling because it’s the decent way to be. It’s Texan.

Above all, folks in Texas are outgoing and friendly. If you’re in a  line with  three strangers at the grocery store you’ll be swapping recipes by the time you get to the checkstand. And they always lace their conversations with deep Texas humor even when they talk about the scenery.

In a word, it’s flat.

“West Texas is a place where you can stand on the porch and watch your dog run away for a week.” — Hal Jay, WBAP Dallas

I’m a native Californian. I grew up  with giant redwoods, the pine studded forests of the high Sierra and the  cold, rocky coastline of the Pacific Ocean north of Mendocino. I miss all that but everything in life is a trade-off.

So, I’ll romanticize tumbleweeds blowing across I-20 from Midland to Odessa because it’s the most exciting thing you’ll see there. And it can be pretty at sunrise.

Photo by Tim Gilliland

In Texas we have longhorn cattle lying contentedly in green groves of Blue Bonnets, though the wild flowers are only there for a month each spring. You’ve seen hundreds of pictures like this.

We have the world’s best barbecue and Tex-Mex cuisine, honky tonks and Texas swing;  we got the Alamo, the Dallas Cowboys, Willie, Larry McMurtry and Dan “his ownself” Jenkins.

Cypress trees wearing old man beards of moss. Beautiful. Keep an eye out for gators and cottonmouths.

There’s a lot to love about Texas but not the view. People wax eloquently about Hill Country but you’ll never hear the word “mountain” in a description of the state. Even the haunting piney forests and bayous of East Texas, where ghostly cypress trees grow out of the swamps wearing old man beards of moss is merely west Louisiana.

I’m writing this in Abilene. Not only is it not the prettiest town I’ve ever seen, if you blindfolded me and spun me around and dropped me into the middle of it I might guess I was in Waco or Waxahachie, Dime Box or Gun Barrel City.

And I guess that’s the real beauty of Texas. It’s one place in time like all the others in the Lone Star State. It’s all different yet the same and it’s a lot of different people a whole lot alike.

Sweetness and attitude.

And you can call them country and they don’t care
And if you don’t like the way they wear their hair
You can take your like and shove ’em on up the line
People in Texas don’t care if the sun don’t shine

— Charlie Daniel, “Texas”

Willie Nelson, CarolAnn and me

“If America could sing with one voice it would be Willie’s.”
– Emmylou Harris

When I met Willie in person I froze. I literally couldn’t open my mouth to speak.

It was in the late 1980s in the Dan Russell Rodeo Arena in Folsom, California. When Willie finished his last song he did something that blew our minds: He put down his guitar, stepped down from the stage and walked through the dirt right into the crowd of his worshipers wearing that famous crinkly-eyes, half-crooked smile.

He stayed out there, signed autographs and chatted with folks until we all finally dragged ourselves back to our cars for the happy drive home.

I don’t remember if I shook his hand but I think not. I just stood stupidly next to my hero while my wife asked him to autograph our tickets, which he did. Then she asked Willie if I could phone him the next morning for a short live interview on my radio show. He smiled and nicely explained that he’d like to but his bus would be hitting the road as soon as he got back in it.

(This was in the early days of cell phones, once you got out of town you could forget about talking to anyone. He’d be long gone by tomorrow.)

I never said a word. I literally couldn’t find my voice and I don’t regret it. I had stood beside him for a few minutes while he chatted with my wife. I’m pretty sure that’s about as much live interaction with Willie Nelson that I could handle.

I was happy.

I’ve seen Willie and his family four times, I think.

He’ll turn 85 next week and I need to see him again before the time slips away.

 

Read any good movies lately?

Do you ever watch foreign films or TV with subtitles?

Until a little more than a year ago I always said I don’t want to read a movie. I want to watch the scenery and the faces of the actors. And, I’ve always wondered what I was missing when a long piece of dialogue spoken in a foreign language is boiled down to just a short sentence or a few words. A character in the show may rattle off a three minute soliloquy but the caption at the bottom of the screen simply reads, “I agree” or “Right on, dude!”

Actual screenshot of my TV with captioning on. This character in a story set 300 years ago is calling someone “a dork”.

Sometimes the translators who write the captions don’t really have a handle on American English, especially slang and cultural references that don’t suit the time period of the movie.

These things always bugged me until last year when my wife, the lovely and feisty CarolAnn Williams, turned me on to Korean TV.

I don’t remember how she came across the TV channel, Dramafever. She’s not Korean. She doesn’t have any Korean relatives or friends and has never been to that part of the world but Korean TV shows have no sex, violence or bad language. The comedies are whimsical to the point of innocent absurdity and the dramas are skillfully produced with quirky plot twists. CarolAnn loves them. It’s practically all she watches. And now I watch them with her.

Together we enjoy the many Korean historical dramas of the Joseon dynasty which dates back to 1392. These are tales based upon real kings and queens who lived three or four hundred years ago, of battling royal consorts and political factions plotting to grab power. Wars are waged with swords and arrows; fights involve a lot of shouting and flashy martial arts, our heroes flipping high in the air for no apparent reason before they kick three guys at once.

(In Korean historical dramas once you’ve been kicked to the ground you’re out of the fight, the same as dead.)

I looked them up: “Comminate” – To threaten with vengeance. “Scapegrace” – A mischievous rascal. (These days we’d probably say, “asshole”.)

The plots are engaging, the acting is generally excellent and the costumes are colorful and fun.

Best of all, those subtitles are sometimes hilarious. And sometimes they actually expand our English vocabulary.

And along the way we’ve learned a Korean word or two. For example:

“Pyeha, paliga yeollyeo issseubnida!”

Which means, “Your majesty, your fly is open!”

Of music and noise

I don’t listen to music very often. When I do it has my full attention.

Everywhere we go these days we hear music in the background: in malls, restaurants, grocery stores, theater lobbies; even outdoor city sidewalks have music poured onto them like some sort of sweet, gooey corporate confection.

When I ride in a friend’s car and he has the radio turned on very low I want to reach over and shut it off. Or, turn it up and stop talking.

Elevators and telephone on-hold music are the worst, of course. That’s satanic torture, mind-numbing and inescapable.

What idiocy have we subscribed to? Why must we be soothed, excited or pummeled by music everywhere we go?

Most of the time I just want the world to be quiet. Silence is bliss. It’s the only way I can hear myself think.

When I want to hear music I decide which music, when, where and how.

And then I will actually listen to it, giving it my full attention and allowing it to fill me.

I love music. It deserves more respect than ambient noise.

 

Photographic Treasure

This is the only picture I have of my entire family together. (I’m not in it because I was holding the camera.)

I’d like to say my family always looked this happy but that wouldn’t be true. It wouldn’t be true of any family. Old photos allow us to keep and embellish the good times when everyone was smiling because we were all really happy together, at least in that moment.

My old pictures invoke a nice warm feeling of a time when life was less complicated and when my family was together for everything including mealtimes at the table, visits with our relatives and family vacations.

This was our family vacation in McCann, Northern California, along the Eel River in August of 1964. We were there for a week which included my 13th birthday. My parents gave me a stamp collecting album and a wonderful variety pack of international postage stamps to study, sort and paste.

I also got a new, official National League baseball which my dad and I tossed back and forth for hours that week right in the middle of the dirt road outside our cabin’s front door.

McCann  was already a ghost town when we were there.

It was smack dab in the middle of no place, Humboldt County. It had been a stage coach station in 1881 and a post office soon after. It tried to be a town but stumbled and failed in the thirties and forties. By the time we got there in ’64 there were no living businesses, just the dirty old windows of store fronts that had been abandoned decades earlier.

As I remember it we were there for an entire week without seeing another soul. The only traffic we saw and heard were the Northwestern Pacific freight trains that rumbled and shrieked just a few feet past our cabin in the middle of each night. When that happened we all woke up and giggled in the dark, not just us kids, our parents too.

We had no TV in that cabin and couldn’t even get a radio signal. I know because I tried. Instead we just played together. We hiked down a steep river bank to get to the water’s edge. I held my little brother’s hand as we waded into the Eel. I held onto the blowup raft with my little sister aboard and grinning from ear to ear.

Dad and I fished with salmon eggs for bait and I saw beavers playing in the water not far from the lodge they had built from the branches of young fir and redwood trees along the shore.

My mom burned my birthday cake trying to bake it in an ancient wood burning oven in the cabin. It was edible, just toasty, and I loved it because it was mine and Mom made it for me.

On my birthday I wrote a note to the future, shoved it into an empty tin can and stuck it deep inside a hollowed chunk of a tree that was still very much alive. I imagined that the tree would grow over that hole and preserve my message. Someday, I thought, someone would cut that tree down and find my hello from the past.

Wouldn’t it be something if it was found now, in the 21st century?

I remember all of that from one picture taken 55 years ago. I probably have a lot of it wrong. I just remember it as I wish to.

This picture makes me happy.

Typing?

Throughout our lives we encounter people who influence us in seemingly small ways that turn out to be very significant in the long run. Frequently these are never central figures in our lives but they make a lifelong impact.
Going into my senior year at Highlands High School I was scheduled for an academic counseling session with Mr. Moore. In the 1960s most of us didn’t start making college plans until the beginning of our senior year. Nowadays parents hire agents to guide their children’s college careers from birth. But in my day we just had Mr. Moore telling us whether we should take another science class or public speaking or what have you.
 
Mr. Moore told me I should take typing.
 
Highlands High – Sacramento, CA 1969

That shocked me. Typing? How can I put this in sensitive, modern terms? Typing was for girls! Boys didn’t take typing class. Boys took wood and metal shop or auto shop. I was a big deal in the drama department which was cause enough for snickers in the locker room, but TYPING?
 

Mr. Moore could sense my confusion and explained to me that knowing how to type would help me in virtually every aspect throughout life.
 
(That reminded me of the time Mr. Roarke told me that algebra was the most important thing I would ever learn. Yeah, right.)
 
Typing? Boys don’t type. Men don’t type, men have secretaries. I know what you’re thinking but look, that was the way it was at the time. Thankfully, we’ve gotten beyond all that. Right? (Does that work for you?)
 
Anyway, I was just 17. and had never heard of a single boy who had taken typing class. I think I actually said aloud, “But typing is for girls.”
 
That’s when Mr. Moore gave me a smile and a sly wink.
 
“That’s right,” he said, “just you and all those girls.”
 
Mr. Moore was a genius and a devious old devil. I took his meaning immediately and signed up for typing on the spot.
As it turned out Mr. Moore gave the same advice to Gerry Smith and I was glad of it. I wasn’t the only boy taking typing and I couldn’t deal with 40 girls all by myself.
 
I’ve been typing virtually every day of my life. Mr. Moore was right. And if I say so myself, Gerry and I both gained a lot of poise and confidence around girls.
 
I mean women.

Play ball!

Candlestick Park, San Francisco – 1960s

Today is the first day of the Major League Baseball season and as always I’m just a bit melancholy.

Throughout my life I’ve taught myself to treasure my past without clinging to it. Some people can’t let go of their “good old days”. They just seem worn out and refuse to go any farther.

They seem to quit on life before it leaves them.

I’ve worked hard to avoid what I call GOMS, Grumpy Old Man Syndrome. It’s not hard. I’m blessed. I love my life, my family and friends. I love waking up each day.

But every year there is one day, this day, that makes me feel old and frustrated because my body won’t allow me to play the game in my heart.

Baseball is the essence of eternal youth, of fluffy white clouds in March and the smell of freshly cut grass. To play the game, to run and leap and slide in the dirt using muscles that stretch and coil in perfect harmony with young reflexes, is indescribable.

Spring turns to summer and we played daily, all day, until darkness sent us home for a brief time out. In those days tomorrows were endless and each new morning began with a promise of glory.

All the wonderful tributes paid to the game that turns old men into little boys again hurt just a bit. It’s the only time of the year when I am painfully nostalgic for my youth.

I’ll watch the boys of this summer. I’ll remember their skills and hope for them that they love it all as much as I still do.

 

A note to my grandsons

Dear Isaiah and Tyler,

I’d like you both to know that though I don’t get to be with you very often I think of you every single day. I really do.

When I wake up in the morning my first thought is to be grateful for a new day. I thank God for it. If you don’t believe in God that’s your right but you should give it some serious thought before you dismiss the possibility that you are alive for a good reason, not just by accident.

Either way, you should start each day happy to be alive. Be grateful for sunrise, blue skies, cold rain and for puppies and bugs.

Be grateful for the people you love.

That’s when I think of you, first thing each day.

Start your day happy.

When you’re happy it makes everyone around you happy. It’s contagious. They spread their happiness to other people. We need more happy people in the world.

As you get older you will learn a great many things about life. You’ll learn most of them from experience but you can get a lot of good tips from your parents, grandparents and other people who are older and carry your life in their hearts.

I’d like to share some of my life lessons with you. I’ll just do one at a time.

My dad taught me what I think is the single most important thing in life:

  1. “If you don’t love yourself you’ll never be worth a damn to anyone else.” – Don Williams, 1981

If you can’t love yourself, who will?

I’ll have some more of these from time to time. You can take them to heart or just consider them and decide later what you think.

We never know how much time we have left so I’ll give you the end of these lessons here and now.

This is the point and purpose of life, in my opinion:

“We are game-playing, fun-having creatures;
we are the otters of the universe.”
Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

With much love,
Your Grandpa Dave

Copyright 2018, David L. Williams. All rights reserved.

A bird watcher’s lament

(Beginning music by the great Spike Jones and his City Slickers via YouTube.)

Ah, spring! When every young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. 

Old men like me start thinking about pollen, mowing and weeding and sneezing and wheezing. And here in Texas that means I’m in for at least seven months of it. Except that I usually throw in the towel and give up about mid-August. That’s when the heat keeps me indoors most of the time knowing that my efforts to keep everything green and colorful are futile anyway. The lawn will turn brown eventually no matter what I do.
It’s Texas.
 
Last year I found a new distraction that I fancied might become a serious hobby. I started birdwatching. I don’t mean to offend anyone but in my mind nothing says “old man” louder than trying to differentiate between a common and a great tail grackle. Not that it matters. Grackles are all annoying trash birds that scare away the ones I really want to see: cardinals and orioles, golden finch and a rainbow of hummingbirds.
 
We bought bird feeders last year and placed them where we could see them from our family room. That was fun at first but the more involved I got the more frustrated I became in trying to stop the sparrows from beating up a delicate little tufted titmouse or a delightful red breasted nuthatch.
 
Sparrows are mean. They’re bullies, did you know that? They are. Theyve been known to throw eggs our of the nests of other species and steal their homes.
 
And another thing: birds are messy. They throw more seeds on the ground than they eat and they eat a ton of them. It gets expensive. The bird seed takes root in the lawn and weeds are growing everywhere when I had none before. What worse — the dogs eat the seeds off the ground and leave us little, crumbling piles of seedy poop.
 
I don’t know what to do. Should I resume the madness and go broke again having truckloads of premium seeds delivered from Amazon or should I just let them fend for themselves.
 
The thrill is gone and I’m glad I escaped the grip of addiction before it could pull me down to rock bottom. I am now and shall always be a recovering bird watcher.

Blossoms of spring, promise of cobbler

Spring has sprung in North Texas.

Dormant lawns are greening before we can get our mowers tuned. Perennials are yawning awake. We’re thanking last year’s spent annuals while replacing them with a new generation of color and sweetness.

Our peach tree is budding with gorgeous pink flowers and promise of delicious homemade cobblers in the coming summer.

I smoke meats and cook dinners but peach cobbler is the only from-scratch dessert in my baking repertoire. It’s easy to make and nothing is better after any summer evening meal, especially when topped off with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream. Blue Bell please, if you have it.

My blogging friend Gabriana took note of her own peach tree blossoms the other day and like me, she’s pretty excited about it. (See her Nosy Parker Blog here.)

As much as I love the dark cold days and long, narcotic nights of winter, this time of year I’m forced to admit with observational comic Robert Orben:

Spring is God’s way of saying, ‘One more time!’