Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Cultural notes--a glimpse of the new South

I consider myself a southerner, but it’s been a long time since I’ve spent any time in the red state south. Austin is blue. But I grew up in the red.

I remember driving around like a tourist some years ago in part of East Texas, which has always been definitely politically and culturally south. The nominal reason was to go to a wedding of a friend of my wife, and along the way to look at old graveyards and abandoned farmhouses.

It didn’t really seem that much different from any other part of America. But then I didn’t talk politics or religion with anyone. I concluded at the time that the South I remembered was gone. I seemed to be an archaeologist, poking around in the ruins.
Leaving Austin, at first there was nothing but farms, well kept and neat and plowed into quarter-mile brown patchwork rectangles ready for spring planting. This was not properly East Texas. The farms prosper in the long wedge of blackland prairie running down along the eastern front of the Texas hill country; the farmers are Germans who came here and found a treeless plain underlain by a sticky black soil only North European peasants could love. After the Texas Rangers and the US Army had killed most of the Comanches and Kiowas, the previous owners, and driven the rest up into Oklahoma, Germans came and stayed and farmed. They are here still.
The land immediately east and north of Austin was flat. The only trees are in hedgerows and along creeks. Turkey buzzards drifted down the languid thermals of January in their frayed road-kill plumage, tilting motley-feathered and dilapidated, yawing and gliding slowly, reminding me for some reason of the 1950's convertibles, with sprung shocks, of my high school years.
So we continued on our way. Taking back roads and taking pictures. The sunset was in the clouds at our backs, the spectacular blood and pus sunset of the Texas winter, streaked pink orange and gray. We ended up spending the night in some little town.

The next morning was cold and rainy. We ate breakfast in a roadside cafe which had three highway patrol cruisers and a deputy sheriff's car parked outside; by legend a sure sign of real Texas cafe food. Inside, the lawmen, bulging necks pulsing with strangled arteries like high pressure hoses, sat loudly around a big table made of 2 regular tables jammed together. They all had on their white Stetson hats, pushed back. You don't take off your hat if you are a Texas law officer in a cafe, not so much because of the Code, but because you would get syrup on the hat if you put it on the table. Hat racks are not used and chairs put the hats at risk. They were enjoying bacon and eggs and biscuits and pancakes with their coffee, and discussing their trade. Kay ordered the same. I ordered orange juice, causing the matronly waitress to squint at me as if I were ill, perhaps contagious. I was thinking if she asks me her question, “You OK, honey?” and I say something like “Yes ma'am, it's just that I'm a vegetarian,” would the officers of the law leap up and arrest me, overturning chairs? I was not actually a vegetarian, but the thought came to me anyway, like thoughts of guilt to an innocent person taking a lie detector test.
The man at the sticky vinyl-seat booth next to ours said we were not in East Texas yet, East Texas begins at Palestine, (pronounced "palesteen") 30 or 40 miles down the road.
By the time breakfast was over the rain was coming down pretty hard. We stopped to look at the county courthouse, which had as its main historic ornament a cannon said to have been hauled back from the failed Confederate invasion of New Mexico and buried in the ground during Reconstruction. Afterward it was dug up by southern patriots and installed in front of the courthouse. It looked small and harmless in the rain.

So let me tell you about the wedding. It was in Omen, Texas, in the middle of the Good Omen oil field, which is played out. The church looked like it was built by carpenters in the congregation and so was not as ugly as more modern or more prosperous Baptist churches. It was a little barracks built on cinder-block piers, and had asbestos siding and a couple of square wooden columns holding up the porch which in turn held up a small steeple maybe 8 feet high, resembling, except for the size, the Tin Man's hat in the Wizard of Oz. Inside there was a somewhat worn red motel-office carpet. There were red velvet drapes with tassels on the windows, plastic plants on the altar, and a gold archway of anodized aluminum with plastic ivy growing on it, for the couple to stand in front of, with matching candle holders. A boy dressed in a white tuxedo marched down the aisle reverently holding a long taper from his crotch, and lit all the candles while keeping the base of the long candle clamped to his privates. Then he wheeled triumphantly and marched out again, brand smoking.
Before the wedding a small plump man with a red bow tie who looked like a reincarnated Liberace was crooning inspirational Christian songs, accompanying himself on a keyboard that had the muted timbre of a funeral parlor organ. The ceremony was brief and was followed by a passionate man-and-wife kiss which pleased the assembly. Then the couple left; then they came in again and posed for the photographer and then they really left, and finally we all drove 20 miles to the reception in the groom's bachelor A-frame house in the pine forests where all the groom's friends, who seemed to be gay, got drunk and mimicked the country relatives.
My mind wandered. The worst flaw of the southern intellectual has always been an unreasoning loyalty to the South, to its culture and to its people. I had been wondering if I had this problem, but here I was beginning to notice that my culture--as I remembered it anyhow--might not exist any more, outside of isolated pockets of racism and illiteracy. My memories, perhaps, were the memories of a child, of a world that never was.
My great-great grandfather General Henry McCulloch was the military commandant of the Northern district of Texas during the Civil War, and his headquarters was in northeast Texas at Bonham, maybe 80 miles north of the Good Omen wedding. The area was a backwater full of deserters and outlaws, and beyond the Red River and out on the plains roamed hostile Indians. Most of the fighting involved the deserters, who had gathered in armed bands of two or three hundred men in places like Jernigan's Thicket in Delta County. The deserters would waylay and shoot down the Confederate troops, and the troops would summarily execute deserters they captured. My great-great grandfather (hereinafter MGGF for short), to his credit, did not like this and ordered a stop to it. He wrote to one of his colonels after a string of murders attributed to the colonel's men.

"My orders are sufficiently barbarous for any Christian land...but I do not desire men shot after they throw down their arms and hold up their hands nor after they are captured... let [such things] occur no more."

But the outrages continued anyway. Even worse, Quantrill's raiders, temporarily driven south from their bloody plains, appeared as unwelcome visitors in northeast Texas and committed robberies and murders indiscriminately against civilians, deserters, or soldiers; whoever they happened to outnumber at the time. "They regard the life of a man less than you would that of a sheep-killing dog. [They are] but one shade better than highwaymen" said MGGF of Quantrill's forces. This situation was complicated by the fact that Quantrill was a personal favorite of MGGF's own commanding officer, General Kirby Smith. Nevertheless, MGGF called Quantrill to his headquarters and arrested him there for murder, but made the mistake of accepting Quantrill's word as a gentleman that he would not leave the room on the west side of the Bonham courthouse. Gen. McCulloch, whose wisps of idealism about human nature were in this case misplaced, then went across the street to eat supper and Quantrill took the opportunity to escape. Quantrill rejoined his men and they retreated across the Red River, since it was getting hot for them in Texas.
The desultory war between groups of deserters and the threadbare detachments of soldiers under McCulloch's command went on until the end of the war. MGGF said of that part of Texas, "I have never been in a country where the people were so perfectly worthless and cowardly as here." We are talking about an area extending from what is now styled by its FM radio announcers as "the Dallas Ft. Worth Metroplex," (fulsomely, I discovered, in the tone of voice appropriate for announcing the next act in a circus) nearly to Houston.
The entire Civil War in General McCulloch's district of Texas consisted of Indian fights, on the one hand, and ambushes and random killings and shoot-outs between gangs of ragged, ignorant, and desperate white men, on the other. I would like to think MGGF acquitted himself honorably, attempting, albeit unsuccessfully, to suppress what would now be considered war crimes. But I have never been able to find out if his stated aversion to his troops committing atrocities extended to actually preventing them from doing so.

My old-South reverie ended when I noticed the Liberace organist flirting with one of the groomsmen, and no one seemed to be thinking of lynching either of them. But this was, as I said, several years ago. Possibly, influenced by Karl Rove and Fox News and Family Values, it would be different today.

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