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Texas People, Texas Places
More Musings of the Rambling Boy
By Lonn Taylor, Barbara Mathews Whitehead
TCU PressCopyright © 2014 Lonn Taylor
All rights reserved.
TRAVELS WITH MY FATHER
I CANNOT GO on a long road trip without thinking about my father. He was a highway engineer, a member of the first civil engineering class to graduate from Texas A&M that studied highway construction rather than railroad construction. That was in 1924. He went on to have a long career with the US Bureau of Public Roads. He was one of the architects of the Interstate Highway System, and he retired as a regional administrator of the Federal Highway Authority, with responsibility for all federally-funded highway construction in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
My father was never comfortable in an office. He was happiest out on the road, looking at highway jobs. He frequently took me with him. Our drives together were our father-and-son time, and I learned a lot from them. Dad looked at the terrain with the eye of an engineer, and he tried to teach me to observe the things that he thought were important and to draw conclusions from them. When I was a child he showed me how to watch for the next water tower as we drove across West Texas together. He explained that West Texas towns large enough to have water towers were thirty miles apart, because West Texas counties were thirty miles square and the law required that the county seat be in the center of the county.
Once during a drive from Fort Worth to College Station, we drove over a rough place in the pavement, almost a trench, just north of Hillsboro. Dad slowed the car to a stop, backed up, and pulled over on the shoulder next to the deteriorating pavement. A fence line stretched away across the fields on both sides of the road. "You see what happened here?" he asked, pointing along the fence. "When they built this highway the right-of-way went right through this fence, and the contractor failed to fill the post holes properly after he took the fence down. Water got into them, the base failed, and now the pavement is failing." The lesson here was that not doing small things right at the start of a task will eventually cause big problems.
The area around Hillsboro was replete with landmarks for Dad, as he had been the federal inspector when US Highway 81 was paved through there in the late 1920s. He would always point out the first highway overpass in Texas, an iron truss bridge that had been moved from a defunct railroad to carry a county road over the highway just south of Alvarado. South of Hillsboro was a big white farmhouse that always prompted a story about a man who had been appointed to a responsible position in the Texas Highway Department during one of the Miriam Ferguson administrations, which were notable for political cronyism. When the man went to start his new job, Gibb Gilchrist, the state highway engineer, politely questioned him about his qualifications. "Well, sir," the man said, "do you know that big white house west of the road four miles south of Hillsboro?" Gilchrist said that he did, and the man said, "Well, I live there." Gilchrist said he didn't see what that had to do with his qualifications for an engineering job, and the man said, "Why, when you all built that highway from Hillsboro to Waco I went down to my fence every day and watched you. I know all about how to do it."
Dad told me stories about nearly every small town in West Texas, because he had built highways through most of them. Monahans was where, when Noah got forty days and forty nights of rain, half an inch fell. Post was where a café waitress once told Dad that of course the oysters on the menu were fresh; they came down every morning on the bus from Lubbock, didn't they? Sierra Blanca was where the sheriff once mistook Dad's black government car for a similar one being driven across Texas by Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, with near-fatal results. He used to say that he married my mother because he built the paved road to Nocona and she was at the end of it.
My father was born into the horseless carriage era, and he developed a profound respect for the lethal power of the modern automobile. His interest in highway design focused on ways of ameliorating that power. Tight curves and short sight distances are dangerous, but engineers often favor them since more generous curves and longer sight distances require more right-of-way and more earth moving. Dad was quick to point out the implications of this parsimonious approach, especially when we were driving across states outside of his region. He also disliked what he called "unnecessary signage." Too many signs, he said, distracted motorists and constituted obstacles that they might hit if they lost control of their cars. He was especially contemptuous of signs telling you that you were entering or leaving a particular watershed or national forest district. "Who cares?" he would say. The one type of sign that he thought was absolutely necessary were confirming signs, the signs that tell you that you are still on the right route when you are following a highway through a city and that are so often not there after the route has made a turn. Every time I drive through a city I can hear my father muttering, "No confirming signs. What's wrong with these people?"
One of my father's minor achievements was the development of breakaway highway signs and their use on interstate highways. When I was twenty-two I lost control of my car on the Dallas-Fort Worth toll road and hit a highway sign, spending several months in the hospital with a broken femur as a result. Dad had heard that someone was working on the development of signs that had a joint in their stanchions that would cause them to collapse if struck by a car. He went to the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M and talked them into making the development of these signs their top priority, and when a workable model had been produced, he persuaded the Federal Highway Authority to adopt it as the standard sign on all interstate highways. He was prouder of those signs than he was of his role in designing the original Interstate Highway System.
My father died nineteen years ago, at the age of eighty-nine. But he is beside me every time I get behind the wheel of a car.
February 23, 2012CHAPTER 2
UNCLE KIT THE DRIFTER
THERE IS A sentimental ballad from the 1870s called "The Little Rosewood Casket," about a dying woman who wants a package of old love letters read to her. The chorus goes: In a little rosewood casket / Sitting on a marble stand / There's a packet of old letters / Written by a cherished hand. I opened a packet of old letters the other day. They were not in a rosewood casket and they are not love letters, although they are affectionate. They were written seventy years ago to my father by his uncle Christopher Columbus (Kit) Taylor and they tell a Texas story that will never find its way into a history book.
My father's Uncle Kit was the black sheep of the family. He was born in 1867 in Farmersville, Texas. When he was eighteen, while on a drunken spree, he killed a man by firing a shotgun into his house. The man was black; Uncle Kit came from a respected family. The jury sentenced him to five years in the penitentiary, but the judge gave him his choice of serving his sentence or joining the army. Uncle Kit chose the army and did not see his family again for eighteen years. He came home briefly in 1903 and stayed long enough to witness my father's birth and enter his name in the family Bible. According to my grandmother, Uncle Kit had prepared his mother for that visit with a telegram. She drove a buggy to the railroad station to meet him but did not recognize him when he got off the train. He walked up to the buggy and asked if she would give him a ride to the hotel downtown. Still not recognizing him, and thinking that her son had missed the train she told him yes and started toward the hotel. As they passed the family home he said, "Mama, why don't we stop here?" and she burst into tears. As a child I thought that was a funny story, a joke well played. Now I see the sadness in it.
Uncle Kit disappeared again and did not surface until 1940, when one of his sisters died and left her estate to be divided equally among her siblings and their heirs. The rest of the family wanted to leave Uncle Kit out, but my father, motivated as much by curiosity as a sense of justice, decided to track him down and see that he got his share. Dad found him in Southton, Texas, a flyspeck town southeast of San Antonio, where he had a job as a watchman at a small oil refinery. By then he was in his early seventies, an old man living in a shack. The letters that I opened are the letters that he wrote to my father over the next two years, telling, or more accurately, revealing, the story of his life.
They are the letters of a well-read man. He quotes Byron, Henry Grady, and Robert Burns, and in one says that his favorite poet is Thomas Campbell, a nineteenth-century Scots poet popular with elocution teachers. In a letter to the Texas Department of Public Welfare, enclosed in one of his letters to my father, he quotes lines from the poet Owen Meredith while complaining about the late arrival of his old age assistance check. The packet includes a ten-page article about the New Deal that he submitted to some newspaper, headed "Submitted at Your Usual Rate," tracing the development of government through Hebrew, Greek, and Roman history and comparing Franklin Roosevelt to Emperor Diocletian. Uncle Kit was clearly an autodidact.
The letters reveal scattered facts about his life. In one he says that after leaving the army he "bore arms as a free lance" in Guatemala and Mexico. In another he refers to working as a timekeeper and stenographer on railroad construction jobs, as a sheepherder in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington, and as a farmhand in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, "farming for my keep." In 1934, he says, he "drifted for self-preservation" to the federal transient camp in Oklahoma City, and then to camps in Fort Smith, Texarkana, Austin, and San Antonio, where he subsisted on a two-dollar-a-week allowance "waiting for the job offered by the New Deal" until he was hired by the refinery in Southton. However, shortly after his correspondence with my father started, the refinery closed down and he moved into a boarding house in San Antonio, living on his old age assistance check of twenty-six dollars a month plus the ten dollars a month that my father was sending him.
None of Uncle Kit's letters show any regrets for his way of life. In one he writes, "It would be useless to tell you of all the opportunities I let slip, but I will add, these were thrown away because I always imagined there were better opportunities further on." In another he speaks of his "natural (or perhaps unnatural) proclivity to wanderlust, instilled in me and aggravated by father's insistence on my following explicitly his policies rather than compromising on some of my own wishes." In response to my father's offer to send him some reading material while he was still working at Southton, he wrote, "I have some very good books which give me company in the evenings and my wages are sufficient to give me plenty to eat. What more do we get from life?" He apparently never married. In one letter he congratulated my father for having done so, saying, "I would have been far less restless and better off had I married."
The last letter in the package is dated from San Antonio in October 1941. In it Uncle Kit speaks of corresponding with a lawyer in Dallas about his sister's estate. My father told me that a month after receiving that letter he got one from the sheriff in Uvalde, saying that Uncle Kit had died in a hotel there and a letter from my father was found in his suitcase. His burial insurance paid for his funeral. My father never knew why he had gone to Uvalde.
Uncle Kit was a lifelong drifter, the "Forgotten Man at the bottom of the economic pyramid" that Franklin Roosevelt spoke about. Were it not for the packet of old letters, he would have dropped between the cracks of history.
November 17, 2011CHAPTER 3
A LOVE STORY
THE PLYMOUTH COLONY had Priscilla Mullins and John Alden ("Why don't you speak for yourself, John?") and Jamestown had Pocahontas and John Smith, even though Pocahontas married someone else and went to England and had her portrait painted wearing a funny neck ruff, but Texas has no great love story among its founding myths. Stephen F. Austin was a bachelor, and Sam Houston, before he came to Texas, had an unhappy first marriage that lasted eleven weeks. Houston's middle-aged marriage to Margaret Lea could hardly be described as a passionate romance—after all, his mother-in-law lived with them, and the staid Handbook of Texas says that Margaret "served as a restraining influence" on her free-wheeling husband. They did, however, produce eight children.
Of the rest of Texas's founding fathers, Anson Jones never married, and David Burnett waited until he was forty-two to marry, and that was in New Jersey. Who could have a passionate romance in New Jersey? Mirabeau Lamar, the second president of the Republic of Texas, came to Texas as a widower and, like Houston, married again in middle age, when he was "on the shady side of fifty-three," as he said in a poem addressed to his bride. Lamar comes closer than any of our Texas heroes to being a romantic lover, at least on paper. He was a prolific poet, and he addressed innumerable poems to various women in his life, both by name and under sobriquets such as "the Jenny Lind of Georgia" and "the minstrel maiden of Mobile." However, it seems that his advances were often rebuffed. In a poem entitled "There Is a Maid I Dearly Love" he wrote: I have long been her worshipper / And evermore must be / Yet colder far than Zembia's snows / That maiden is to me.
The absence of a genuine love story in Texas's past means that in order to write a Valentine's Day column I am going to have to turn to the story of my own parents' courtship and marriage. It is a story that I learned in bits and pieces while I was growing up, but only got the full details of from a package of letters I found in my mother's trunk after her death. As a child I knew that my parents were married in Seymour, Texas, in May 1932, and that their marriage was a happy one. What I did not know until I started reading the letters my father wrote to my mother during their courtship was that they had first met in the spring of 1929, when my mother was teaching high school in Nocona, Texas, and my father was a young engineer with the federal government's Public Roads Administration in Fort Worth. The letters show that they immediately fell in love, and that by the fall of 1929 they had decided to get married but had not yet told their parents. Then came the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, and the ensuing Great Depression. My mother's father, who owned a drug store in Nocona, lost his business and his savings, and my mother's schoolteacher's salary became a necessary contribution to her family's finances. She did not feel that she could leave her teaching job to get married, and she knew that if she got married she could not get another teaching job, since schools did not hire married women as teachers in those days. So for two years they visited back and forth between her parents' home and his, going to movies and plays together and writing each other about how much they missed each other between dates.
Finally, in the spring of 1932, the superintendent of the Nocona schools announced that there was not enough money in the county treasury to pay all of the teachers in the fall, and some would be let go. My mother was the youngest teacher in the high school, and she knew that she would not be hired again in the fall, so she wrote to my father and told him that she would accept the proposal he had repeated on every date for the past two years.
Excerpted from Texas People, Texas Places by Lonn Taylor, Barbara Mathews Whitehead. Copyright © 2014 Lonn Taylor. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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