The Texas Connection
“My Texas connection started innocently enough… On that first jaunt through Texas I acquired a life-long addiction to time-tripping.”
The following is an excerpt from the anthology, Forever Texas, featuring the writings of George W. Bush, H. Ross Perot, Phil Gramm, Dale Evans, Lyndon B. Johnson, Stephen Austin, Sam Houston, and Lucia.
The Wraith Riding Shotgun
When I leave my neighborhood in Arnold, Maryland, the only two places in the world where I’m likely to be recognized in public are Groesbeck, Texas, and Crowell, Texas. I’ve never been arrested in Groesbeck or Crowell, and as best I can remember, I don’t owe anyone money there, but people stop me on the street anyway.
A few have asked for an autograph. Some want their photo taken with me, and one woman started sobbing in sheer agitation. (Another went down on her knees in a crowded bookstore and proclaimed me a goddess, but that was El Paso, and can’t be used against me here).
This is not the sort of treatment I’m used to back east, where I could topple beak-first into the gutter and sprout toadstools and no one would break stride.
Blessing ceremony performed by Monroe Tahmahkera at the spot where Cynthia Ann Parker (his great, great grandmother) was re-captured.
Fort Parker outside Groesbeck, TX, where Cynthia Ann and her brother John were taken captive.
Even as Texans reckon distance, Groesbeck and Crowell aren’t near enough to each other to make an extramural beer run, or send an away- team to the pasture-hockey finals. They do have something in common, though. They’re both partial to a particular ghost.
I’m partial to that ghost myself. She took me to Texas in 1980 and she keeps me coming back; she, and the fact that the rear view of a rodeo roper in tight levis is a deeply religious experience. The ghost’s name is Cynthia Ann Parker and I have a lot to thank her for. She sent me off on a course I never could have imagined. She changed my life, profoundly and for the better. You can’t cannonball deeper into debt to someone than that.
My Texas connection started innocently enough with arrant lust at a Baltimore science fiction convention on Easter weekend, 1979. There, amidst sword fights raging through the hotel lobby and loathsome ET’s crammed into the elevators, I met the science fiction writer, Brian Daley, and his editor. Brian asked me if I had read the new Han Solo novel. I airily replied, no, I didn’t read movie spin-offs. His editor’s wife blurted out, “He wrote it.” So I took Brian to the hotel bar to mend fences, screwdrivers being the best tool to mend this sort of fence.
That was Saturday night.
Sunday morning, Brian and I watched the pastel-and-polyester Easter breakfast crowd collide with Balticon’s google-eyed aliens, Darth Vader wannabes, and industrial-sized lasses in dog collars and leopard-skin bikinis. In one 12-hour period, I found love and an editor. Love got me grinning like a baked possum. The editor got me a book contract.
I was looking for love, but not an editor. I already had a respectable job as a librarian in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. I mentioned Cynthia Ann Parker to this editor though. At the age of nine Cynthia Ann was taken by Comanches after an attack on her family’s fort in east Texas in 1836. She lived with the Comanches twenty-four years, married, and had three children.
Her story, I observed, would make a helluva novel. The editor, who otherwise seemed a sensible specimen, suggested that I write it. I gave him the flounder-eye, as though he’d suggested I run for pope, and said, “I don’t know beans about plot or dialogue.”
He called me at work every Monday anyway, to ask if I’d started writing. To placate him I ordered a few books on Commanches through interlibrary loan, emptied out my recipe box to put note cards in, and squandered $125 of my $15,000 annual salary on a manual portable typewriter. On Halloween night of 1979 I hitched a chair up to the old door laid across two night stands that still serves as a desk. I cracked my knuckles, tucked my hair behind my ears, poised my bony fingers over the typewriter keys, and made the acquaintance of the wretch who would become my second most faithful companion in life: writer’s block.
The first line finally came to me in the shower, and I bolted out, wet and nekkid, to write it down. I solved the problem of plot development by starting with a massacre. My advice to beginning writers: start with a massacre. You don’t need snappy dialogue for that.
Maybe it was propitious that I began writing on All Hallows’ Eve. My house has been full of ghosts ever since. It’s no wonder that writers have a reputation as a substance abusing lot. We don’t just hear voices, we are voices. We historical novelists table-tap in a perpetual seance, trying to get a postcard, a laundry list, a doodle on a bar bill, any sort of communication from those who cashed in their chips a hundred years ago or more.
I’m not the spooky sort; but I could swear, as I tippity-typed away after coming home from work at night, creating carnage in appalling amounts and detail, that someone was standing behind my left shoulder. I knew who she was too, a nine-year-old child witnessing the slaughter of her family in the east Texas wilderness of 1836.
In early 1980 I sent the first six chapters to Brian’s science fiction editor. He walked them down the hall to his friend, Pam Strickler, of Ballantine Books. She received the eighty pages on Friday. On Tuesday morning she called me at work to offer me a contract, and to read me my rights — movie rights, foreign rights, serial rights.
Cereal rights? Were they going to print it on boxes of Captain Crunch?
All she needed from me, Pam said, was my signature and nine hundred more pages. My boss sneaked out for bubbly, the library staff got royally snockered on the taxpayers’ dime, and through a champagne haze the thought festered, “Oh, s**t.”
As an historical novelist with a contract I could now add “Professional Liar” to my resume. I’ve since learned that Texas history is the best possible place for a professional liar to hang out, but there was a catch. The only writing course I’d taken was a semester of high school journalism twenty years before. Brian had gone to Los Angeles to adapt the first Star Warsmovie for National Public Radio, so I was on my own. I looked through books for advice, and found some.
Somerset Maugham wrote that there are three rules for writing fiction. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
Anonymous said that writing fiction is getting your hero up a tree and throwing rocks at him.
Jack Warner explained plotting: Boy meets girl. Girl gets boy into pickle. Boy gets pickle into girl.
By the time I finished telling the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son Quanah, the last Comanche chief to surrender to the U.S. Army, my recipe box of notes would overflow to fill a couple file card drawers. The bibliography would include ninety-six sources, and I would acquire a fractious pack of imaginary friends.
Historical accounts were helpful, but the map is not the territory. I had to visit Fort Parker. I had to see the hill country where Cynthia Ann’s Comanche band, the Honey Eaters, pitched camp. I had to stand in the grass of the Staked Plains and get blown slantwise by the west Texas zephyrs. I had to wade up to my insoles in the Pease River where Sul Ross, a college kid who took a summer job fighting Indians, recaptured Cynthia Ann. I had to bivouac in Palo Duro Canyon where Quanah Parker brooded through his last days with the band of Comanches known as the Wanderers.
I requested my three weeks of annual library leave, packed my sleeping bag and pup tent, hung a “Gone To Texas” sign on the front door, and decamped. I arrived in Texas in May when the blue bonnets were staging their annual coup. May was when, in 1836, a large coterie of Kiowas and Comanches attacked Fort Parker. They were annoyed, I’d read, because the Parkers had liberated horses from them in retaliation for stock stolen by a bunch of brunets from another tribe. It was a familiar plotline on the frontier.
I flew to San Antonio because it’s an enchanting city and because my earliest Texas connection lived there. Darlyne Morales is a fourth generation Texan, born and raised in San Angelo. When I met her in 1968 she told me she included a shoebox full
of hometown hardpan in her household inventory so that wherever the Air Force might send her and her husband, their children would be born on Texas soil. That must have generated some lively discussion in the delivery room in Germany when her son was born. Darlyne and her Box O’ Dirt gave me the first inkling that Texans were different from us trail-broke critters in the herd.
Darlyne’s husband Bill tuned up their red Rabbit until it was humming in the key of C, added a CB, and handed me the keys. I threw my tent and sleeping bag into it and took off for Groesbeck where, as any Texan can tell you, Fort Parker has been re-created. It wasn’t re-created in my image though.
The countryside matched what I had imagined, but the fort was larger than mine, and it lacked the small cabin I pictured in the center. The main gate was on the side opposite where I thought it should be, which meant the spring I’d read about was not where I’d assumed.
I asked the ranger in charge if this was the way the fort had looked in 1836. He shifted his chaw to the other cheek and said, no, it would have been smaller. A family couldn’t defend a stockade that big. “And,” he added, “we think there was a small cabin in the middle where Elder John and his wife lived.” I asked about the gate. He said it would have been on the other side to catch the morning sun.
I stood there in the same morning sun that had shined down on the Parkers and felt the waters of the past rising around me. I’d waded into history’s flow, and it was proving to be more mysterious and surprising than I’d expected.
I knew that coincidence accounted for the similarities between the image I’d conjured up, and the fort as it probably was. But even so, that was the first hint that this research trip, and those to follow, would include more than current reality. It showed me that truth and fiction, the past and the present are hard to tell apart without an arc lamp and a jeweler’s loupe.
I put 3,000 miles and a couple hundred years on the Morales’s Rabbit during that first foray into the past. Two decades later odd details come to mind: a thimble-sized hummingbird nest on a mesquite limb at the Alamo movie set in Brackettville; a Don Quixote of a rattlesnake who tilted with my front tire near Enchanted Rock; a fiddle contest in Archer City where the emcee asked me to stand up and eye-dentify myself; tea with four hulking truckers whom I met via the CB; strangers who gave me the two-fingers-above-the-steering-wheel salute as their pick-ups rumbled past on the back roads.
I remember watching my first professional wrestling act on TV at two a.m. in San Angelo with Darlyne’s grandmother. Darlyne’s grandmother more than made up in exuberance what she lacked in size. I’d’ve put my money on her against any of them in the ring.
I remember joining the grand orbit of dancers two-stepping to the music of Bubba Litrell and his Melody Mustangs. I remember standing on a bluff overlooking the Pease River and imagining the Comanche lodges scattered along it. Imagining soldiers attacking and Cynthia Ann running from them with her youngest child in her arms.
I pitched my tent on the floor of Palo Duro Canyon. I spent a morning lying on my back watching the buzzards circle between the parentheses of the canyon walls. I was careful to twitch now and then before they mistook me for the main corpse, or the cadaver d’jour.
North of Amarillo I followed a ranch road to the site of the buffalo hunters’ camp at Adobe Walls where Billy Dixon made his legendary one-mile shot at an army of Indians eager to take a lot off the top. Two monuments stood there at the base of hills carpeted in flowers and with a magnificent view of the Canadian River threading the plain far below. A coyote passed silently into the tall grass, as indifferent to my presence as any big city dweller.
That’s where I first experienced The Hackle Factor. The hair on the nape of my neck stirred in an old and phantom wind, as though an unseen hand had opened a coffin and released a djin. The air and earth felt charged with the spirits of the people who had died there. I could almost see the force of Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors urging their ponies over the crest of the ridge and racing down the slope, determined to eradicate the heedless entrepreneurs who were destroying their food supply, their families and their way of life.
On that first jaunt through Texas I acquired a life-long addiction to time-tripping. What I discovered was that solitary travel gives a sense of timelessness, of animated suspension between the nattering of the present and anxieties about the future. On the back roads, sharing the car with their ghosts and a companionable silence, it may be easier for me to understand the lives my characters led than for them to understand mine. That may be why I have found myself trying to explain muzak, call-forwarding, mail-waiting, rush hour, and RuPaul to the wraith riding shotgun.
The book that came out of that first trip, Ride the Wind, is in its twenty-fourth printing. Thanks to Darlyne’s grandmother, I could describe in it how a horse eats thistles, how to peel an armadillo, and how to bark a squirrel. No, not bark at a squirrel. Even Texans don’t bark at squirrels, at least not often. They shoot at the limb just ahead of the animal so the bark explodes up and knocks him out of his tree. Then he can be bulldogged, hog-tied, bludgeoned, skinned, hanged, drawn, butchered, dressed out and quartered. The resulting forkful of meat can be tossed into the evening stew with no pesky lead to take a bite out of the bridgework.
A writer friend once confessed that early in his career he described two cowboys sitting down to feast on a prairie dog. At a book signing a ranch woman came up to him and pointed out that there’s not enough meat on a prairie dog to fill a cavity in a molar. My friend looked at her solemnly and said, “Ah, but, Madam, a hundred years ago prairie dogs were much larger.” I’ve used that same line to counter skepticism about my description of a rampaging Texas river. Everyone knows that Texas is so dry the trees whistle for the dogs.
Texans usually eat higher on the hog than squirrel or prairie dog though. For the barbecue at Fort Parker’s Christmas celebration a few years ago, I helped sort and clean seventy pounds of dry beans, also at two in the morning. Do Texans never sleep?
That was my first experience with steer-on-a-stick, a shish-kabob of half a beef carcass. My friends basted it with a mop sloshed in a washtub of sauce. That’s nothing out of the ordinary for Texans, but we hardly ever use mops as cooking utensils in Arnold. Nor do we carry bottles of our favorite hot sauce in our pockets wherever we go. Also, the hot sauce we do use cannot double as paint remover.
I recently read, by the way, that while it’s not true that Texans will eat armadillos, ‘possums, prairie dogs or rattlesnakes, if times get tough, they know where to find them. I tried that material out on my Groesbeck friends, Celeste and Bob Coffee and Dale McDaniels. At the time we were riding in the Coffees’ double-axle, jalapeño-red “fun” truck with a perimeter of flashing running lights. At night the fun truck looks like a casino making house calls.
I got as far as “I hear it’s not true that Texans will eat possums, armadillos, prairie dogs or rattlesnakes…” when as if on cue they made the roll-bar ring with, “Yes, they will! Texans will eat anything.”
Why I happened to be in the fun truck that typical Texas weekend involves a tornado, a downpour of red dust, 10,000 cowboys, a shirttailful of Indians and me on a very pregnant mare in the 106th annual Fort Worth stock show parade. All of that was followed by a multiple smash-and-grab, Civil War re-enactors weeping over the loss of their Enfields and Sharps, purloined Coggins that kept us from riding in the rodeo grand entry, a Scottish Comanche vigilante in full regalia on a honking big Yamaha with wolf paws painted on it, and waffle-patterned fingerprints in the red dust that the tornado dumped on the fun truck.
That weekend I learned that Booshway, the Coffees’s miniature poodle, gets his daily grunts by racing in a fluffy white blur around the perimeter of the Groesbeck cemetery, sort of a track-and-potter’s-field event.
For a grand finale, we all crowded onto the sofa in the family room, at two a.m., of course, and watched a video of our friends, the Tahmahkeras, acting in a kung-fu western filmed in Chinese, with English and Comanche subtitles. But that is another story.
Crowell. In late 1860 Cynthia Ann Parker was recaptured near Crowell, Texas, so I must have passed through there on that 1980 trip; but it became memorable to me fifteen years later. That was when Crowell’s town librarian, Jackie Diggs, called to ask if I would attend their third annual celebration of Cynthia Ann Parker Days. I couldn’t refuse a librarian, especially when she made me laugh so hard I had to treat my adenoids for windburn. Jackie has a wit as dry as north-west-central Texas dust and as penetrating as chaparral.
I did have one stipulation. I don’t do the hood ornament thing. In 1985 I had to wave graciously from the prow of a Buick at a Parker family reunion parade in Quanah, Texas. Hell’s hinges can’t compare with the hood of a Buick at noontime in August in Quanah, Texas. It’s damned difficult to wave graciously when the tail end of your fuselage is on fire.
As I drove to Crowell from the airport at Wichita Falls I began to wonder if I would have a place to sleep when I arrived. Jackie had said she’d saved a room for me at Crowell’s only motel. She said that the motel’s other thirteen rooms were reserved for Quanah Parker’s descendants.
Quanah Parker had five wives, and something like thirteen kids. The Parker tribe has had a hundred years to parlay that hand. I could do the math. It would be the Oklahoma land-rush in reverse, with the Indians getting the real estate. Once more the whites would be wanting in on the Indians’ reservation.
What I couldn’t find along that stretch of Texas highway, or any other, was a phone booth from which to call and confirm my motel reservation. My theory is that phone booths confuse Texans. They mistake them for Chase and Sanborn cans, “yield” signs or Wild Turkey bottles, all of which God created for target-shooting. And by the way, what yankee-come-lately in the highway department ever thought Texans would cotton to signs exhorting them to “yield?”
Anyway, I was agitating about that 10-by-12-foot parcel of roadside bliss when I remembered that I was in Texas. It didn’t matter if I lost the room reservation. Someone will always put you up in Texas, whether you want them to or not.
When I got to Crowell I stopped at the library to look for Jackie Diggs. Jackie wasn’t there, but a stoolie must have fingered me, because within minutes a white Cadillac docked out front and a small whirlwind named Eunice shimmered out. Before I knew what hit me, she had chicken-winged me and frog-marched me into the car. Eunice Halbert and her husband Grady hijacked me to their house, hid my clothes in their homey spare room and fed me beans and ham and corn bread until I was too bloated to resist their kindness.
I happened to be the Halbert’s sole sleep-over that weekend. I didn’t realize then how odd that was. The Texans I know don’t put limits on the number of guests. If they have floor space, a yard, a shed or a pickup truck you have a place to bed down.
I’ve slept under a billiard table in a den paneled in guns, while the family’s two pet bisons snored in the corral outside the window. Comanche friends have invited me to share their spare bed with their wolf. I’ve occupied a pup tent with a barrel racer who shorted out the fun truck’s electrical system trying to run her curling iron off the cigarette lighter.
I’ve curled up with Booshway, the permanently-permed cemetery sprinter, on a pullout by the Coffees’ back door. No one used the front door. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing a front door. I lost count of how many people were staying at the Coffees’ that weekend, but their parrot, Charley, greeted all of them as they came in and wandered past my sleeping accommodations with a friendly wave and a “Howdy.” Charley shouted “Hello’ every time the phone rang too. But I digress.
The Halberts took such good care of me in Crowell, and Jackie made me laugh so much, that I came back the next year for a re-match at the fourth annual Cynthia Ann Parker Days. By then Eunice had published her own account of Cynthia Ann’s story, a children’s book called Two Feathers from Red River Press. At the height of the revelry we signed our books on Crowell’s main drag, and I became drunk as a fiddler on a brand of 80-proof celebrity I don’t get to sample elsewhere.
That is, I didn’t get to sample it until I met Sandi and Monroe Tahmahkera who install air conditioners, sell insurance, book bands, raise appaloosas, act, dance, tell jokes, and bless us all in Dublin, Texas, and elsewhere. If Cynthia Ann Parker is my Texas connection, the Tahmahkeras are the Groesbeck-Crowell connection. And as Quanah’s great grandson, Monroe Tahmahkera embodies a direct link with Cynthia Ann.
I was leaving Crowell on Sunday morning and stopped on the courthouse square to say goodbye to Jackie. She introduced me to the Tahmahkeras and their tribe. They were all heading out to participate in Monroe’s blessing ceremony at the site where Cynthia Ann was recaptured. Did I want to come along? Does a bear get gas in the woods? I couldn’t think of a better reason to miss a plane flight.
In the years since then I’ve met many of the Tahmahkeras’ vast family, biological and adopted. I’ve had the privilege of joining them in their celebrations of the past and the present— in Crowell, at Fort Parker, at the Fort Worth Stock Show parade and the 42nd annual Comanche Homecoming, and on a two-week, seven-vehicle caravan across three states. I’ve seen and learned things I never would have experienced in Arnold.
I’m here to testify that a writer can find more extravagantly uncommon characters in Texas than in all the other states put together. If you’re going to take in ghosts anyway, I recommend the Texas variety.