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Texas Tales

published: February 9th 2018
by: Mike Cox

Except for the calendar, which said it was Decem-ber 25, that long-ago Christmas seemed more like a summer day than a morning in early winter. Kids in the Northeast might have been having a traditional chilly -- even snowy -- holiday, but in Austin it was already warm and soon would be just plain hot and dry.  This was in the early 1950s during the protracted Texas drought Western novelist Elmer Kelton later des-cribed in only five words, "The Time it Never Rained."

Back then, of course, I wasn't much interested in the weather beyond whether it would interfere with playing outside. Like most young Baby Boomers that Christmas, my focus was what I would find under the tree when I walked into the living room. The little Ralphies of the day may have been longing for a BB gun, but I already had one. I wanted something else. Had Santa read my letter?
The first thing I checked that morning was to see if Santa Claus had helped himself to the two homemade sugar cookies I had (with reluctance) left for him the night before. Sure enough, only a few crumbs remained on the plate, and the special Santa mug from Winn's Five and Ten Cent Store that Grandmother had filled with Hillcrest Farms milk was dry.
We had no chimney for him to come down, but somehow, Santa had gotten inside our modest suburban house, made his delivery, and enjoyed a late-night snack before heading to the house next door. I quickly swung around toward the tree to see what Santa had left. And there it was, looking pretty much like it had in the toy section of our well-thumbed Sears catalog. A tin U.S. flag flew over the light brown plastic stockade and a pair of blockhouses guarded the front corners. Centered between those elevated defensive positions double gates stood slightly ajar beneath a faux wooden sign reading "Fort Apa-che."  Against the back wall sat the log cabin-style post headquarters, made of tin. Evidently aware of Grandmother's oft-declar-ed warning that I'd likely come down with "lockjaw" (aka Tetanus) if I cut myself on a tin toy, Santa had thoughtfully taken time to assemble the headquarters as well as the rest of the playset. 
Of all the gifts I was fortunate enough to receive during those magical  years when I still believed that a jolly red-suited fat fellow riding a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer actually circled the world in one night and somehow delivered toys to millions of households, none delighted me more than that Fort Apache set. All these years later, I happily recall hours of pleasurable play time centered around that fort.  
In a figurative sense, Fort Apache stands in my memory as a silent sentinel of my childhood, past which passed the trail to my future. While Walt Disney's Davy Crockett movie may have had a somewhat stronger influence on my subsequent interest in writing Texas and Western history, the toy frontier fort I discovered under the tree that long ago morning proved a very close second.
Time after time, I successfully defended the military post from Indian attack. When the last warrior fell, all I had to do was pick him up, along with his fellow braves, and start the battle all over again. Yes, the cavalrymen always won.
"How would you like to see a real old fort this summer?" my granddad asked one day as I sat on the hardwood floor playing with my Fort Apache set. Naturally, I said yes. Sure enough, that summer on our way from Austin to El Paso to visit my aunt and her family, we stopped at old Fort Davis, an abandoned cavalry post near the small West Texas community that shares its name. At that time, the ruins were privately owned, the only restored building being a one-story structure housing a small museum. Walking across the parade ground with Granddad, I kicked a dirt clod. When it broke apart, I saw an old buckle and picked it up. Granddad examined it and declared it was from a cavalryman's saddle. I still have that artifact, the first of many I would collect at historic sites over the years.  
When I did finally abandon Fort Apache, so to speak, it was a matter of my age, not its age. After years of enjoyment, suddenly riding my bike and hanging out with friends along the creek near my house became more important than playing with my Fort Apache set, even on a rainy day. I don't recall for sure what I ended up doing with it. I think I gave it and the rest of my toy soldiers to the little brother of a girl I was trying to impress in high school.
Given what collectors today are willing to pay for vintage Fort Apache sets, I would have been far better off keeping the fort and taking my chances on winning that girl's affection solely on the basis of my rugged good looks, sparkling wit and charming nature. The reason I know that early-day Fort Apache sets are expensive (roughly 40 times their original price in some cases) is because I recently bought one. Yep, I have returned to those thrilling days of yesterday and am once again the happy owner of a Fort Apache set. My capitulation to nostalgia for an icon of the Eisenhower years amply demonstrates the power of the collecting urge. Actually, all of us of a certain age know it's more than that. It is an effort, no matter how futile, to revisit the simple joys of childhood one last time.
I'll say diss about Texas
Roy Holt lived in Texas all his life, served in World War One and possessed a solid education. But in his late 60s, a time of life when many men are content to let things be, he decided to write a booklet spotlighting folks who had said unfavorable things about the Lone Star State.
The result was "So -- You Don't Like Texas," published by the author (1897-1985) in Copperas Cove in 1965.  At this late date, there's no way to know how well the book did, but at least 14 Texas libraries still hold copies.
Given that Holt grew up around Santa Anna in Coleman County, graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio and spent half a century as a school teacher or administrator in Santa Anna and later Copperas Cove, surely he held no grudge against Mother Texas. More than likely he saw his book as good-natured fun poking. And few who know anything about Texans could sustain an argument that residents of this state, at least dyed-in-the-wool true Texans (which is not to say someone who moved here from say, California) could not use an occasional regimen of ego deflation.
Holt started out with an anti-Texas quote that dates to the early days of the Republic. In 1841, a British subject named Charles Hooten wrote a book called "St. Louis' Isle, or Texiana." The world traveler observed:
"It has become almost a proverb in the United States, that when a runaway debtor is not to be found...or a murderer has contrived to elude justice, he has chalked upon his house door 'G.T.T.'....Gone to Texas."
Hooten then committed mass libel in further noting that the G.T.T. proverb had not developed "without... fact to support it." Indeed, the Brit continued, "Scoun-drelism, under one shape or another, constitutes the largest portion of the present population of Texas."
Two decades later, a colonel in Her Majesty's Cold Stream Guards came to Texas in 1863 to observe the war between North and South then in progress. He didn't think much of Texas horsemen, reporting with clear disdain that they could not sit an English saddle nor jump a horse over a fence.
A Catholic priest, arriving in the 1840s from France to serve parishioners in Castroville, had no use for Houston. It was, he wrote, "a wretched little town composed of about 20 shops and a hundred huts, dispersed here and there among trunks of fallen trees. It is infected with Methodists and ants."
One of the more famous non-Chamber of Com-merce comments in regard to Texas came from Gen. Phil Sheridan, who in 1866 observed, "If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell." The general, speaking in Galveston a dozen years later, tried to talk his way out of the slur by noting that he had been in a bad mood when he said it.
Another military man, Col. Richard I. Dodge, as a shavetail spent time at various Texas military posts prior to the Civil War. Looking back on those years, he wrote, "Every bush had its thorn; every animal, reptile, or insect had its horn, tooth, or sting; every male human his revolver; and each was ready to use his weapon...on any unfortunate sojourner, on the smallest, or even without the smallest, provocation."
Not all discouragingly disparaging words about Texas have come from men. Holt found an early day account of two women talking about Texas men. First off, the older of the two ladies declared, Texas men were not educated. Second, and apparently to her mind even worse, "Deer, bear and turkey don't mind being shot at by them. They seem to know they are entirely safe." As if that were not insult enough, she went on to say that Texas men made lousy Indian fighters.
Speaking of combat, World War Two brought hundreds of thousands of out-of-staters to Texas for military training. Needless to say, a lot of those involuntary visitors didn't much cotton to Texas.
"Texas is beautiful," one GI wrote, "but only to Texans."
Another picky private, evidently with at least some knowledge of U.S. history, observed: "We must have lost the Mexican War, because we wound up with Texas!"
When Alaska became a state in 1959, Texas lost its long-held position as the nation's largest state. Some soldier rubbed it in by suggesting that Alaska should divide itself into two states. That way, he declared, Texas would be only the third-largest state.
Space does not allow for an unabridged compendium of all the calumny piled on Texas over the years, but Englishmen and armed service members appear to have been the chief offenders.
Ah, but sarcasm is a two-edged officer's saber. In the 1990s, a longtime Dallas seller of rare and used books, visiting London in the pre-terrorism days to look for inventory in England's quaint antiquarian shops, was questioned by a British customs inspector shortly after arriving at Heathrow.
"And what brings you to the UK," the official said after examining the Texan's passport.
"The climate and the food," the Big D bookman shot back.

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