The Young Ted Cruz Claimed an Affinity with James Madison–Not So Fast

This article was originally published by the History News Network in 2012, under the title “Senator Cruz, You’re No James Madison.” The following version has been updated.

John Willingham is a regular contributor to the History News Network. He has an M.A. in American social/intellectual history from the University of Texas at Austin.

Ted Cruz speaking at the Value Voters Conference in Washington, DC. Credit: Gage Skidmore

Ted Cruz speaking at the Value Voters Conference in Washington, DC. Credit: Gage Skidmore

More than twenty years ago, by way of linking his work to the ideas of James Madison, Ted Cruz titled his senior thesis at Princeton “Clipping the Wings of Angels,” derived from a famous quote in Madison’s Federalist No. 51:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Cruz’s 118-page thesis is interesting in part because it shows how little difference there is between the young Princetonian of 1992 and the Tea Party darling [and presidential candidate of today]. And, on its surface, the thesis might be taken to confirm an affinity between the freshman senator from Texas and the man who has been called the “midwife” of the Constitution.

The full title of the thesis is “Clipping the Wings of Angels: The History and Theory Behind the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” Cruz has continued to use part of the title in recent comments, such as this op-ed arguing for a reinvigorated Tenth Amendment. But it is in his specific analyses of these amendments that Cruz shows how far he really is from the James Madison that historians describe, especially when Cruz tries to make Madison a champion of states’ rights.

Neither amendment is lengthy. The Ninth: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

The Tenth: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Both Bernard Bailyn [of Harvard] and his former student Jack Rakove, a professor at Stanford and an eminent Madison scholar, have argued that Madison and most of the Founders believed that the Bill of Rights was not an exhaustive list of rights, not for their own time and certainly not for all time. Madison was especially concerned that the listing of rights could be taken to mean that other rights not listed would be denied or unprotected as a result of their exclusion.

“Accordingly,” Rakove has written, “for Madison the language of the Ninth Amendment expressed a vital principle” that unlisted and even unanticipated fundamental rights must nevertheless be eligible for Constitutional protection, though the Constitution did not specify criteria for determining such rights.

Madison was long opposed to a bill of rights because of his concerns about the fate of unlisted rights, but after a lengthy correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, who was minister to France at the time, and after being challenged for a place in the new Congress by James Monroe, an ardent supporter of a separate bill of rights, Madison decided that a bill of rights was necessary, if for no other reason than to incorporate the wishes of Antifederalists who were against ratification of the Constitution without a bill of rights.

Thus it came to be that Madison rather quickly drafted and proposed his own list of rights for the Congress, hoping to avoid delays or challenges that would force a second Constitutional Convention, which would likely lead to a gutted version restoring too much power to the states. It was unthinkable to Madison for the nation to revert to state dominance. In fact, he had seen an earlier and very dear proposal of his own–to subject all state laws to Congressional veto–fail in the early days of the Constitutional Convention.

As Rakove and many other scholars have emphasized, Madison saw the states as a major impediment to the protection of minority rights because their sometimes “vicious” legislation too often reflected the influence of self-interested majorities within the relatively small jurisdictions of most states. After all, it was the self-serving and obstinate ways of the states under the Articles of Confederation that created the need for a new national Constitution.

Madison’s solution: give sufficient authority to the national government so that its much larger and more diverse majorities would be less vulnerable to foolish or parochial control. While Madison recognized that government on any scale was capable of abusing authority, he also thought that most if not all the mischief that might come from the national government could be limited by the separation of powers in the Constitution.

Madison’s inelegant, tentative draft of an amendment that included parts of what came to be the Ninth and Tenth Amendments became the basis in Cruz’s thesis for an argument that Madison viewed “the [unenumerated] rights retained by the people” (later, the Ninth Amendment) as actually their rights against the “illegitimate means” of the national government in carrying out its powers.

Therefore, Cruz would have Madison targeting the elastic (necessary and proper) clause by penning the Ninth Amendment, even though Madison wrote in Federalist No. 44 that the Constitution would be a “dead letter” without the clause. The actual Ninth Amendment text simply addresses the concern that the Bill of Rights itself does not exclude other rights.

[The Ninth Amendment did not emerge as a focal point in constitutional law until the Griswold decision in 1965. While not stating that definite additional rights can be identified in the Ninth Amendment, Justice Douglas, and more pointedly Justice Goldberg in a concurring opinion, did allow that some personal rights not specified in the Constitution should not be denied, as was the intent of the Ninth Amendment. The later Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 went further, finding a specific right to privacy regarding a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy, “whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people…”]

And this brings us to the Tenth Amendment. In his thesis, Cruz is critical of the ruling in the 1976 National League of Cities v. Usery case, decided by the Burger court and generally viewed as a conservative ruling. Usery sought to balance federal and state interests with respect to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Cruz conceded that “the Court thought it was being true to the spirit of the [Tenth] Amendment…if tight requirements are met.” But by the mere consideration of the issue as something less than an absolute line between state and federal power, the Court had “already lost the idea of enumerated powers.”

Such a view falls just short of claiming that the Tenth Amendment limits the federal government to only those powers “expressly” listed in the Constitution. Having learned from their dismal experience with the Articles of Confederation that a national government without implied powers to implement its acts was ineffective, the Congress rejected attempts to limit the federal government to only those powers “expressly” delegated to it.

Madison himself strongly opposed the insertion of “expressly” into the text of the Tenth Amendment “because it was impossible to confine a Government to the exercise of express powers; there must necessarily be powers by implication, unless the Constitution descended to recount every minutia.”

Richard Brookhiser, an editor at the conservative National Review, is the author of a recent, insightful biography of the fourth president. Brookhiser captures the essence of Madison’s thought on the Constitution with this observation: “Extending the sphere was a remedy [for Madison] that applied to the government as well as the nation.”

What Brookhiser means is that when Madison helped bring about an extended government “sphere” that included the separation of powers as well as a bill of rights, and an extended national sphere that overcame the pernicious influence of state majorities, he did so believing that only such a delicate balancing act could serve both an effective national government and the individual rights of its people, whether enumerated or not.

These views are neither static nor deferential to the states. Recall that in the quote Cruz is so fond of using, Madison wrote that “you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Cruz emphasizes the second part virtually to the exclusion of the first.

No one can deny to Ted Cruz his own right to maintain a static and narrow view of the Constitution of the United States. He has made it literally his life’s work to champion his radically conservative position on the restricted role of the federal government and the relative importance of the states, and he is a man of undoubted ability. His recent actions are designed to draw attention to himself and eventually to his arguments, and he appears to be confident that he is the person who can, with enough attention, prevail. But in attempting to do so, he should respect James Madison for who he really was.

John Graves, Larry McMurtry, and the Nature of Goodbyes

This essay, by John Willingham, originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the Southwest Review, a century-old literary quarterly published by Southern Methodist University.

John Graves, Larry McMurtry, and the Nature of Goodbyes sht_Page_01

I. John Graves

On its surface, the Brazos River today differs little from the murky, meandering, and unpredictable stream that it was in 1957 when John Graves and his dachshund companion canoed along its variable banks for 175 miles, from just below Possum Kingdom Dam to a point in Somervell County a little east of Glen Rose. Believing that the river as it had been would be erased by new dams, Graves set out to inhabit the stream, to retrieve and dwell in its history and lore, and to know it as one knows a person intimately over time. He saw it as inseparable from the stubborn, often violent people it encountered, and from the catfish, darting teal, and deadly water moccasins whose existence it supported. By investing the river with a long and vivid past, he honored its very endurance. The Brazos became like life itself—always changing, always there, vital regardless of appearance. Buried in the mud of the river today are the flint arrow points of tribes now departed, the spurs of cowboys drowned in the tricky currents, and the ruined tintypes of stoic settlers desperate for land. John Graves floated with and above these things, and the ghosts along its banks were a presence within him. About it all he wrote Goodbye to a River, a lament; the lament became a tribute; and the river survived.

There is much that is Faulknerian in Graves’s feeling for the past. It is never dead, it’s not even past, as Faulkner famously said. And like Faulkner, Graves admonished the present for presuming to ignore its origins and assuming that the future could do the same. Faulkner’s stream of consciousness style revealed the internal, emotional collisions of past, present, and future, with a keen awareness that the past, while not being past, is also not static: it carries forward and reaches back to itself simultaneously. To see it as static is not to see it at all but to dwell in its illusions. Where better than on an actual stream to get the feel of this process. The actual, the concrete, were important to John Graves and gave him his inspiration.John Graves, Larry McMurtry, and the Nature of Goodbyes sht_Page_04

Graves and another writer, Henry David Thoreau, had this in common: they both wrote about their trips down a river, and did so with elegance, insight, and precision. Graves resisted a too facile comparison of himself with “Saint Henry,” his nickname for Thoreau, and was not eager to become a fourth at the once prominent table of Texas writers Roy Bedichek, Walter Prescott Webb, and J. Frank Dobie. Graves recognized in Thoreau a man whose faith in the power and serenity of Nature grew out of “the certainty . . . that regardless of the race’s disasters the natural world would go on and on,” but Graves, more than fifty years ago, knew that “Saint Henry’s bottom comfort has been yanked from under us.” What was the path to transcendence for Saint Henry became the locus of deep concern for Graves. He wrote about Nature to warn of the dangers it faced, not to celebrate as a given its eternal regeneration.

Yet, personally, he received from the Nature whose passing he could see something of Thoreau’s transcendence. But for Graves, the idea that one’s bearing and place in the world grew out of the ground one knew best may have had its origins in the poems of Juan Ramón Jiménez, whose work Graves likely encountered during part of the 1950s when he was living in Spain.

“Foot in one’s accidental or elected homeland; heart, head in the world’s air,” Jiménez wrote. When Graves’s heart and head went skyward, he never lost his sense of the land, believing that the better he knew his own real ground, the higher that knowledge would take him. All the more reason to be so concerned about the manifold threats to that ground.

Graves’s affinity with Bedichek, Webb, and Dobie certainly extended to an abiding respect for the land, and for its creatures, history, folklore, and rhythms. Don B. Graham, a longtime professor at the University of Texas at Austin, sees Graves as the direct descendant of The Three: “The appeal of [Goodbye to a River] is threefold. It combines history, folklore, and nature, as though the triumvirate of Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek were incarnated in one volume.”

Graham rightly characterizes Goodbye as “a philosophical narrative” based on Graves’s “ruminations” as he and his not so intrepid dachshund made their way down the river. At first, this might not appear to distinguish him from The Three: in Austin’s Zilker Park, near the banks of Barton Creek, is a sculpture known as Philosopher’s Rock. Depicted in bronze are The Three as they may have appeared during their frequent trips to the cold, spring-fed creek in the summertime, though Bedichek went there year round.

In that setting, and in their correspondence and other personal exchanges, The Three certainly traversed some philosophical terrain. While Graves argued for their continued relevance and recognized that he, like them, was a “nature head,” it is difficult to imagine the solitary Graves perched alongside The Three.

( scan from book jacket ) John Graves, author of "Myself and Strangers." Graves was born in Texas and educated at Rice and Columbia universities. He has published a number of books, chiefly nonfiction concerned with his home region. He currently lives with his wife on some four hundred acres of rough Texas hill country, which he described in "Hard Scrabble." Photo from book jacket cover. HOUCHRON CAPTION (05/23/2004): Texas writer John Graves, author of the classic ``Goodbye to a River,'' will read from ``Myself and Strangers,'' his memoir of becoming a writer, on Monday at Brazos Bookstore. BOOK EVENTS. HOUCHRON CAPTION (06/06/2004): Graves.

John Graves

Goodbye is more philosophical than anything they wrote. Steeped in Texas history and lore it is, but the deepest message of the river in Goodbye suggests a kinship with another writer, far from the Llano Estacado and the banks of the Brazos, but as rough-hewn and occasionally cantankerous as Graves himself: Robert Frost.

Where Graves, and Thoreau before him, floated and paddled down their respective streams, Frost at his most philosophical created one in a poem, “West-Running Brook.” In one of the best analyses of the poem, published in 1994 in the journal Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Walter Jost wrote that Frost had said that “the new thing with me has always included the old.” The central image in the poem is that of “the black stream, catching a sunken rock/Flung backward on itself in one white wave/And the white water rode the black forever.” Near the end of the poem are these lines:

It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current to the source.
It is from this in nature we are from. It is most us.

Two writers, two streams, one imagined as a metaphor for what is “most us” and the other a real stream, whose backward reach and tenuous existence come alive in Goodbye to a River.

II. Larry McMurtry

If John Graves believed that some essence of the past was necessarily joined to the future, Larry McMurtry has regretted the past’s distorted presence, feeling that what was real in it has truly passed us by. Far from paying tribute to the past, he laments its gauzy residue. Too many Texans are only “symbolic frontiersmen,” revering the tough individualism and expansive ambitions of ranchers Charlie Goodnight, Oliver Loving, and John S. Chisum, the absolutist stance of the Alamo’s defenders, and the exploits of the old Texas Rangers. The past for them is what they want to believe, and real history an inconvenience. In an increasingly urban Texas, the symbolic frontiersmen are self-aggrandizing, cartoonish, and restless. Their ties to “the land” are likewise symbolic: it is not to raise beef or grow crops that they make claims on the land; it is to put a crown on their attainments, to combine the solitary Randian tycoon with the John Wayne (or Ronald Reagan) in their minds. Others who cannot afford such grandiose displays do not typically begrudge them, finding their own swagger in big trucks with a herd of horses under the hood, in camouflage caps or cowboy hats, or in the gun or guns of their choice.

McMurtry feels that what has been lost, is lost. The horseman has passed by; young Lonnie has left Cheyenne; the last picture show has ended. Believing otherwise is to calcify the present and shroud it in illusion. But not only is McMurtry convinced of the loss, he has felt it deeply himself, and in him the residue is an uneasy compound of pain and contempt. Growing up precocious and bookish, he was the rural intellectual, set apart in a resolute ranching family that honored hard outdoor work and the authentic cowboy heritage. Like those before them, ranching was their life and gave little time for reflection. Once in the marrow, it was a life that refused to die, even in the midst of vanishing. McMurtry must have developed early a sense of dramatic irony: he could feel what lay ahead, perhaps because he was not encased in that life. He knew that their world could not be his, and that he had to leave it, knowing also that it could not be theirs much longer. That’s a lot of emotion for a young man to carry, enough that a powerful creative life was built around it, along with a need for reconciliation that would not go away. Neither a peripatetic life nor the narrow grave to which he consigned the past would leave it behind entirely. But about leaving the dying land he had no doubts.

His influential non-fiction book In a Narrow Grave, published in 1968 when McMurtry was thirty-two, yanked The Three from their rustic pantheon and deposited them in the grave they had supposedly dug. Having escaped it himself, McMurtry—then at “an easy age to be smart at,” as he wrote later—used that smartness like a young gunfighter whose draw was quicker than that of the old hands he took down.

The Three loved Nature too well, engrafting the lore of their rural pasts onto the land as they imagined it. “Bedichek, Webb, Dobie and their disciples revered Nature, studied Nature, hued [sic] to Nature,” McMurtry wrote. “At their worst they made a fetish of it; at their best they drew on it brilliantly for context and metaphor.”

McMurtry, in 1968, felt that for his generation and the “generations that follow” the reverse would be true: “I doubt we could scrape up enough nature-lore between us to organize a decent picnic. To the Presences, that could only be a damning remark. For them, Nature was the Real. Knowledge of it made a full man, and accord with it was the first essential of the Good Life.”

In making a fetish of Nature, The Three romanticized the land and the frontier life, prolonging its distorting and anachronistic impact on the urban and suburban present. As the most intellectual of The Three, Webb might have known better, and for The Great Frontier he does receive some credit. But in The Texas Rangers, “Webb was writing not as an historian of the frontier, but as a symbolic frontiersman. While it may be possible for a novelist to remain a symbolic frontiersman without impairing his art, the same will hardly hold for the historian.”

McMurtry saw in the present and future some hope of emancipation from a past whose reach was too long, too burdensome, and in modern terms, too unreal. Focused on the symbolic frontier as the carrier of unreality, he was relatively unconcerned about Nature in the largest sense, believing that The Three often conflated Nature with the alleged virtues of the rural life in “the country” and the good old days that were not so good. On the real frontier, men used up the land as though it were as limitless as it seemed, and killed or removed whatever got in their way. Civilization was an afterthought, or something to escape. They did what they had to do, or what they could do. “For better or worse, the country has been despoiled,” McMurtry wrote, granting despoliation a possible reprieve.

Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry

Known for writing his fiction with the end first in mind, typically the present of the narrative, McMurtry discovers and invents what precedes the ending. This, too, is a form of emancipation, not to be tied to origins but mindful always of the future of the story. One of the most prolific novelists of our time, he has extraordinary drive, always pushing his fiction toward that end. In him the work ethic of his forebears is profoundly evident, applied though it is toward much different ends. Years of tending cows and mending fences from predawn till after dusk wears on muscle and bone, but  no more than decades of writing five pages of fiction every day must wear on the creative spirit.

The purpose of the past he creates in his writing is not only to comport with endings; it also re-embodies a more realistic “frontier,” one peopled with characters so vivid and memorable that the West known through McMurtry has become ascendant. As the engaging ghosts of the symbolic past have refused to remain in their grave, his work has fought for and created a more authentic past, not in the writer’s own image but in accordance with the range of his vision. In his hands the frontier past has become more real and compelling, its disjunctions with the present seen now in sharper relief. But can these insights be expanded?

III. The Nature of Goodbyes

Myths and religions have their gods, though many have departed, some now so distant that they are thought to have died. The elements in McMurtry’s writing that lean toward the mythic are more resonant with reality than the myths they replace, though there was a Cowboy God, as In a Narrow Grave makes clear. Who that god was emerges with the unfolding myth, although his gender is not in doubt. “The god who abandoned Antony was Hercules—what is the name of the god who now abandons Texas? Sometimes I see him as Old Man Goodnight, or Teddy Blue, or as my Uncle Johnny—all people the reader will meet if the reader reads on, but the one thing that is sure is that he was a horseman, and a god of the country. His home was the frontier, and his mythos celebrates those masculine ideals appropriate to the frontier.”

The god appeared early on, in Horseman Pass By, the first indication as well of his departure. Homer Bannon did not leave the land as he had come to it, but left it worse off, in the Snopes-like hands of Hud. Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show died at still one more remove from the land, in a dying rural town, so dismal and bereft of dreams that even the movie cowboys faded.

One scholar suggests that in Lonesome Dove the god has become Trinitarian. Whether or not one agrees with Ernestine Sewell that the cowboy trinity is Freudian, her idea that Woodrow Call, Augustus McCray, and Jake Spoon the fallen Ranger flesh out the Cowboy God—his severe code and restlessness, his hedonism and humor, his anomie and decline—aligns with the trajectory of the novel. Starting out as one, in search of the “Eden” of Montana, their quest inevitably fails, for in Nature there is no Eden, just as the symbolic frontier never was. The sole survivor is Woodrow Call, in whom the vestiges of the Cowboy God find no translation, not to his unacknowledged son, Newt, and not to the future that imagines the god’s existence. To Newt his remote father does give a watch. It tells nothing of the time it has seen, but only the time of the present.

In writing his way to this existential point, McMurtry seems to have found that even the cowboy and frontier past made almost whole has no solid bridge to the present, because of the past’s singularity or because of its invisibility to a nanosecond world. There was that past, and now there is a compelling sociological present: the urban life, the suburban stretch of that life to the perimeter. McMurtry does not see the past—at least the frontier past—as John Graves did, or as William Faulkner did before him. He is more like Yeats, who wrote in Nineteen Hundred Nineteen that

Man is in love and loves what vanishes / What more is there to say?

Like Yeats, McMurtry points us to the poignancy, inevitability, and finality of loss. His people—Uncle Johnny—along with his best fictional creations dwell now only in our emotions and only because McMurtry the literary artist put them there. If the Brazos River had carried them down its length, they would have disappeared entirely in the depths of the gulf. And if they had encountered a sunken rock on their way, as in Frost’s “West-Running Brook,” the instant of their being thrown upward and back on the current would have left nothing of them in that place. Although Frost writes that the stream is . . . time, strength, tone, light and love / And even substance lapsing unsubstantial; it is also

The universal cataract of death
That spends to nothingness—and unresisted,
Save by some strange resistance in itself,
Not just a swerving, but a throwing back,
As if regret were in it and were sacred.

Robert Frost wrote with one foot in the nineteenth century, when he was born, and the other in the twentieth century, when he lived most of his life. Like John Graves, Frost believed that “the new thing . . . has always included the old.” But from the modernist within him, Frost wrote too of the “universal cataract of death / That spends to nothingness.”

Also like Graves, he had a “foot in one’s accidental or elected homeland; heart, head in the world’s air,” along with what the critic M. L. Rosenthal described as a “lyrical and realistic repossession of the rural and ‘natural . . . ’.” For Frost, however, the touch of the foot is always tenuous, the retrieval vanishing as it occurs. The only real constant is “substance lapsing unsubstantial” in every moment of life. It is that in Nature that we are from.

Frost and the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead were contemporaries, and what Frost expressed poetically Whitehead presented in the philosophy of “process.” What most defines that process? “The many become one,” Whitehead wrote, “and are increased by one.” Though the process is never static, we can see how it is expressed in “West-Running Brook” by picturing the stream as being suspended for a moment. The contents of the black stream where it encounters the sunken rock constitute the “many”; the “one white wave” that arises upon contact with the sunken rock is the “one”; and the “white water” thus created, thrown back on itself and on the black water, too, “forever,” as it rejoins the stream, is the increase of the many “by one.”

Nor does the rock itself remain unchanged as the process continues. The only constant in the process, is the process itself, a function of Nature:

‘That wave’s been standing off this jut of shore
Ever since rivers, I was going to say,
Were made in heaven. It wasn’t waved to us.
‘It wasn’t, yet it was.’

(Whitehead, however, did not assert that the process “spends to nothingness.”)

In Goodbye to a River, John Graves reminds us that Nature is the fundament of our being, despite the process of change; it is that in Nature that we are from. Therefore, our relationship with Nature becomes increasingly perilous as we presume to abuse it. We do not “own” the stream, it is not ours, it “wasn’t waved to us,” it derives from Nature. Yet we are in it. If we say goodbye to the river, we are saying goodbye to ourselves. Graves retrieved what he felt was the flowing substance of Nature, which he believed the becoming “new thing” should include.

As he was the conservator, McMurtry is the modern, restless and searching, hurtling forward with the stream “lapsing unsubstantial,” feeling the loss acutely and skeptical of translations. Is he right that the frontier past, like its Cowboy God, can speak of nothing but loss, however profoundly? The man who brought books in the thousands to the intellectually arid Texas of his youth must have it within him to see Nature anew and what it portends for his home state now, regardless of rural, urban, or suburban setting. Could he not find more affinity with the state’s other great writer, the late John Graves? That the symbolic frontiersmen of today take their imagined heritage as an entitlement to say “goodbye” to Nature is evident in contemporary Texas. But it is they who now occupy the narrow grave. The Cowboy God has left them there.

Even back in 1968, Larry McMurtry did not consign John Graves to that same grave—the one McMurtry was set on escaping. While noting Graves’s kinship with The Three, he nevertheless set him apart. Driving across the state, restless as always, catching inspiration for In a Narrow Grave on the fly, McMurtry drove through Lampasas, and then

“ . . . picked up 281 again and followed it north, through Evant, Hamilton, Hico, Stephenville. The moon was high and white over the Brazos Valley . . . Soon I crossed the Brazos, its channels silvered by the moon. As always, crossing it there, I looked down, hoping to see John Graves pass underneath me in his canoe—for the Brazos is his river and one expects him there.”

Earl Rudder and Point Du Hoc: Vivid Air Signed with Honor

June 6, 1944, a day that is now a lifetime behind us, commands a place in our national memory because it was then, and there, more than at any other place and time in our history, that American force shone brightest as a force for good. This is so because at no other time has evil in the world been so manifest a threat not only to our nation but to the entire world.

The allied triumph on D-Day nowadays is often taken for granted or, incredibly, forgotten by many who have never lived in a time of such stark and dramatic choices. We are accustomed to the grayness of things, their complexity, their tedious obduracy, and this awareness, while necessary and a part of the reality of our lives, should not leave us without a sense of resolution or without the courage that must go with it.

And while it is not difficult to find both resolution and courage in the story of D-Day, one episode stands apart, stands, literally, higher as a dramatic example of what we may be called to do in the most extreme circumstances.

On the morning of June 6, 1944, three companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion left the safety of their transport ship and crammed into a dozen landing craft that then headed across a heavy sea toward the bare cliffs of Point Du Hoc, on the coast of Normandy.  Out of 225 men, only about 190 made it to the narrow, rocky beach below the point. The others drowned or were rescued from the ocean and taken back to larger vessels.

On the way in, shells from the battleship Texas blasted giant craters in the top of Point du Hoc, driving the German defenders away from the crest.  But as Lieutenant Colonel Earl Rudder, commander of the battalion, made his way in, he could tell that the landing craft were off course. He and his men were supposed to land just after the Texas had finished shelling the point; instead, the first men hit the beach at 7:10 a.m., more than 40 minutes after the battleship had ceased firing.

Imagine the situation Lt. Col. Rudder was in: the Germans had returned to the crest, some of Rudder’s supplies were on their way to the bottom of the English Channel, and the ladders borrowed from the London Fire Department proved to be about 25 feet too short to reach the crest. On the other hand, the shelling had caused a pile of rocks, mud, and shale to form at the bottom of the point, giving the Rangers a 25-foot “boost” before they had to begin hard climbing.

The Germans began firing down on the men and also threw “potato masher” grenades at the ascending Rangers. Amazingly, some Rangers made it to the top of Point du Hoc within five minutes of landing, aided in part by timely artillery support from the destroyer Saterlee, which had observed that the Germans had returned to their positions. Rangers used rocket guns to launch grapnel hooks connected to rope and rope ladders; the hooks caught in the rocks along the crest, and the men were able to scramble to the top.

The Rangers’ mission in attacking Point du Hoc was to seize and disable six 155 millimeter guns that the Germans had taken from the French. But two days before the invasion, the Germans moved the guns to a position about 550 yards from the point, where they lay camouflaged. Allied reconnaissance failed to pick up the new location of the guns, though Rudder and his senior officers knew by D-Day that the guns were no longer placed on the crest, where they could have trained heavy fire on both Omaha and Utah beaches.

In their new location, the guns were in position to fire on Utah beach alone. The six emplacements on the crest remained, however, and allied commanders feared that they would be used by German forward artillery observers after the invasion commenced. So the mission, in effect, changed: the guns and the emplacements needed to be destroyed, but in separate locations. Most of the men of the battalion did not know that the guns had been moved.

From his command post near the top, Rudder sent his radioman back down to the beach to let the fleet know that the point had been secured. (Radio communication was ineffective on the crest.)  Hoping that 500 reinforcements from the remainder of the 2nd battalion and the entire 5th battalion, both of which were to have followed the first wave up the slope, Rudder learned instead that because of the delay they had been ordered to hit Omaha Beach, where their presence was critical to holding the beachhead.

That shift left Rudder and his remaining active force vulnerable to German counterattacks, which were soon in coming. The Ranger force split, with one group under Rudder gathered in and around a giant shell crater on the edge of the crest, and the other forces spread out in an attempt to deal with the counterattacks and secure the coastal road. Rangers in the second group, especially, had trouble seeing or hearing amid the explosions and constant gunfire. One moment they would see a comrade nearby, and the next moment either they or the comrade had disappeared into a looming crater, or worse.

During the night of June 6-7, Rudder had to decide whether to ask his forward elements along the coastal road to join him on the edge of the cliffs, or let them remain where they were–scattered but still fighting off the German counterattacks. That same night found Private Robert Goldacker, a 19-year-old from Michigan, disabled and lost on the torn-up crest of Point du Hoc.

Goldacker, like many of his comrades, clambered over the cliffs only to find that the artillery wasn’t where it was supposed to be. He began running as part of an overall frenzied search for the big pieces but was hit in the back and knocked into a large crater. Unable to move his legs, Goldacker finally crawled through the mud and out of the crater, hoping to find someone other than a German soldier.  He encountered another wounded Ranger, also disabled, and the two spent most of the night leaning against each other, back to back, so that they could have a greater field of vision.

The two men didn’t talk–they couldn’t because of the horrifying noise of battle–but they passed cigarettes back and forth as they tried to make out shapes and other sounds in the darkness. As morning approached, Goldacker tried to pass a cigarette back to his friend. “That night we stopped passing,” Goldacker said. “And that was it.” The other man was dead. Goldacker never found out his name.

Meanwhile Rudder had made up his mind. His men would remain in their positions. If he concentrated all of his remaining force at the edge of the cliffs, the Germans would likely focus their artillery on that location, resulting in the loss of the ground that the Rangers had given so much to take. All the company commanders of the units near the coastal road were dead or injured; only three lieutenants remained. They took charge and held off repeated German attacks, using German weapons and ammo for the most part because their own ammo supply was depleted.

Both Ranger positions held through the next day and night, despite repeated attacks. Finally, on the morning of June 8, men and armor from the 116th infantry regiment broke through and relieved Rudder and his Rangers, more than 48 hours after they had ascended the cliffs of Point du Hoc.  Only 90 of the original 225 men were still able to function on their own.

Forty years later, President Ronald Reagan delivered an eloquent address, now made famous by Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley’s book The Boys of Point du Hoc. The book is not about the military actions but about the reasons for the speech itself, probably the best work of former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, now of the Wall Street Journal.

Reagan sought to make dramatic use of the “boys” and the location of their battle in his speech, and he succeeded. His message was aimed not at the old enemies of the past but at the totalitarian regimes of 1984, especially the Soviet Union, five years before its spectacular collapse. That message was simple, not gray or complex: Point du Hoc represents what we can do when our options have dwindled to annihilation or survival. We survive, no matter the obstacle.

A sizable number of Point du Hoc veterans were still alive that day, and many were seated near the memorial obelisk that marks the site of their heroic deeds. And it was their presence at the event that must have inspired Noonan’s most brilliant stroke in the president’s famous speech–the use of a line from British poet Stephen Spender’s poem “The Truly Great”:

“Gentlemen, I look at you,” the president said, “and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your ‘lives fought for life… and left the vivid air signed with your honor.'”


 

 

 

 

 

 

Oliver Loving’s Death and the Fate of Gus McRae in Lonesome Dove

The elder partner in the famous team of Goodnight and Loving, and the man who pioneered cattle drives from Texas, Oliver Loving died in September, 1867–but the story of his death has lived on in Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove.

In the novel, the scenes leading to the death of Robert Duvall’s character, Gus McRae, are based in large measure on Oliver Loving’s ordeal with Comanches along the banks of the Pecos River.  As you read the account of Loving’s last days, the many correspondences with Gus’s last fight and death in Lonesome Dove will be clear.

Oliver Loving and Charlie Goodnight had a handshake deal with officials at Ft. Sumner, an outpost in southern New Mexico where about 8,000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache had been interned.  Knowing that the fort needed food for the Indians, who had not taken to subsistence farming and keenly resented their internment, Goodnight and Loving saw a new market for the cattle they had rounded up on their main ranch holdings near Weatherford, Texas.  The two men even started a new ranch about 40 miles south of Ft. Sumner, which they used for grazing and holding cattle for shipment to the fort and to markets in Colorado.  The partners spent the winter of 1866-1867 at the new ranch at Bosque Grande.

In the spring, they returned to Weatherford to round up a new herd to take back to the northern markets.  On their way back to Ft. Sumner, neither the Comanches nor the weather cooperated, causing serious delays.  Because their “contract” with the Ft. Sumner officials was informal, the partners became concerned that it could be in jeopardy if they did not reassure the officials that the herd was in fact on its way.

Loving decided to go to Ft. Sumner, but Goodnight was concerned that Loving would fall prey to Comanches if he rode by day, alone.  So he sent his most trusted hand, Bill Wilson, along with Loving to make sure the older man wouldn’t take to riding during the day.

“Loving was a man of religious instincts and one of the coolest and bravest men I have ever known, but devoid of caution,” Goodnight wrote later.

He knew his partner all too well.  “But Loving, who detested night riding, persuaded Wilson that I had been overcautious and one fine morning they changed their tactics and proceeded by daylight.”

About two o’clock that afternoon, the pair ran headlong into 500 Comanches.  Leaving the trail, they began a horse race of about four miles to the northwest, toward the steep banks of the Pecos River, the best defensible spot nearby.  Dismounting, they carried five pistols and two rifles with them and took up positions in the dunes and brakes of the Pecos.  Wilson urged Loving to watch for Comanches along the bank, especially in the reeds that stood five or six feet tall.  Wilson was about 40 feet away and higher up, hoping to take on any attackers from the bluff.  Meanwhile, Comanches had spread out on both sides of the river, and in the river itself, most notably in the tall reeds.

Loving moved down toward the reeds, a pair of revolvers and cartridge belts slung over his left shoulder and his Henry repeating rifle in his right hand.  A bullet glanced off the cartridge belts, broke his arm, and he had a serious wound in his side.

Both men “retreated to the shelter of the river bank, and had much to do, to keep the Indians off,” Goodnight wrote laconically.

Loving was convinced that he would not survive his wounds, and he ordered Wilson to return to Goodnight with news of what had happened.

Goodnight wrote that Loving made it clear in his message that “he had no desire to die and leave [his family] in ignorance of his fate. He wished his family to know that rather than be captured and tortured by the Indians, he would kill himself. But in case he survived and was able to stand them off we would find him two miles down the river. He gave [Wilson] his Henry rifle which had metallic or waterproof cartridges, since in swimming the river any other kind would be useless. Wilson turned over to Loving all of the pistols—five—and his six-shooting rifle, and taking the Henry rifle departed. How he expected to cross the river with the gun I have never comprehended for Wilson was a one armed man. But it shows what lengths a person will attempt in extreme emergencies.”

Wilson did in fact have to ditch the rifle, but he did so with characteristic calm.  He placed it underwater, wedged it against the bank, and stood it upright.  He then removed his shirt and boots and hid them in separate places, and finally hid his knife as well.   After floating past a Comanche on a horse in the middle of the river, he then walked for three days through prickly pear and stickers of every kind, being shadowed part of the time by snarling and snapping wolves.  Wilson made his way about 100 miles back to Goodnight and the main herd.  He had beaten off the wolves with a broken teepee stick he had found on his trek.

When Goodnight and 14 men returned to the Pecos, Loving was gone.  Every item Wilson had hidden was recovered, according to his descriptions of their hiding places.  But Loving had not died; rather, he had floated away down the river, as Wilson had done, and staggered to the nearest road, where he waited for five days before a group of Mexicans found him and took him to Ft. Sumner.

“I believe he would have fully recovered if the doctor at that point had been a competent surgeon,” Wilson said later.  “But that doctor had never amputated any limbs and did not want to undertake such work. When we heard Mr. Loving was at Ft. Sumner, Mr. Goodnight and I hastened there. As soon as we beheld his condition we realized the arm would have to be amputated. The doctor was trying to cure it without cutting it off. Goodnight started a man to Santa Fe after a surgeon, but before he could get back mortification set in, and we were satisfied something had to be done at once and we prevailed upon the doctor to cut off the affected limb. But too late. Mortification went into his body and killed him. Thus ended the career of one of the best men I ever knew. Mr. Goodnight had the body of Mr. Loving prepared for the long journey and carried it to Weatherford, Texas, where interment was made with Masonic honors.”

Author’s Note: The accounts of Charlie Goodnight and Bill Wilson can be read in full in Trail Drivers of Texas.

The Texan Who First Called General Jackson ‘Stonewall’

When Barnard Bee was a misbehaving cadet at West Point, notorious for spitting tobacco and accumulating demerits, military glory was likely high on his list, but becoming known primarily for giving a nickname to another, more famous soldier surely was not.

After graduating in 1845 ranked 33rd  in a class of 45, which included Civil War generals Kirby Smith, Fitz-John Porter, and Gordon Granger of Chickamauga fame, Bee went off to the Mexican War.  After being wounded at Cerro Gordo, he further distinguished himself by leading a charge against Chapultepec Castle, earning two promotions in less than a year of service.  But when the Civil War erupted in 1861, his highest rank attained in the Union Army was brevet lieutenant colonel.

Elected at once as a lieutenant colonel in the South Carolina Regulars, within a few months he was a Brigadier General serving under Joseph Johnston in the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah.  Johnston’s forces were ordered to reinforce General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who found himself outnumbered at the First Battle of Bull Run.  At Henry Hill, the Shenandoah brigades of Barnard Bee and Francis S. Bartow arrived first on July 21, 1861, to help turn back at strong Federal attack. Then came another brigade commanded by Thomas Jackson, who had been a cadet with Bee at West Point, graduating in 1846.

Bartow and Bee were struggling to hold their ground and many Confederate troops were withdrawing when Jackson and his brigade came up.  In the midst of a fierce battle, Bee is reported by some to have said: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall!  Rally behind the Virginians!”  At the time, and generally to this day, the remark has been taken as a tribute to Jackson for standing firm in the face of superior Federal forces, a courageous example and rallying point for Bee, Bartow, and their men.

Tragically for Bee and Bartow, both were soon killed.  Bartow took a bullet in the heart after having one horse shot from under him and receiving a minor wound; Bee was mortally wounded, dying a short time after he was shot.   Bartow and Bee became the second and third Confederate generals to be killed in the war, the first having been Gen. Robert S. Garnett at the battle of Corrick’s Ford on July 13, in what is now West Virginia.  (In all, 73 Confederate generals were killed in the war; the Union lost 69 generals.)

No one knows for sure who circulated the version of Bee’s words that from that day forward marked General Thomas Jackson as “Stonewall” Jackson.  But we do know that Maj. Burnett Rhett, chief of staff to Gen. Johnston, reported that what Bee actually said was: “Look at Jackson, standing there like a stone wall!”   Rhett claimed that Bee was angry with Jackson for coming up to the action too slowly and for not being more aggressive–just “standing there” like a stone wall.

However Bee may have intended the remark, Gen. Jackson’s subsequent actions actually determined the meaning of the nickname.  A man who considered himself entirely in the hands of God was not likely to be dilatory or timid when facing the enemy.  And Jackson had, after all, been promoted to Brigadier General in the first place because of his aggressive fighting in the Shenandoah Valley in the months preceding First Bull Run.

Could it have been that Bee was both irritated at Jackson for not arriving as quickly as he and Bartow had done–and genuinely admiring of Jackson’s courage once he did arrive?  Maj. Rhett may have witnessed Bee’s initial anger and then taken the famous remark as pejorative when in fact it was not.  At least this admittedly speculative view allows Maj. Rhett his veracity and Stonewall Jackson his demonstrable aggressive spirit.

Although Bee’s family moved to Texas from South Carolina, he spent relatively little time in the state before his death at Bull Run.  Not well known, perhaps, is that the brother of a truly famous Texas hero was also at Bull Run that day, and also commanding a Confederate brigade.  That general, Milledge Bonham, was the younger brother of James Butler Bonham, killed at the Alamo.  In 1836, when his famous brother was killed, Milledge was fighting the Seminole Indians in Florida.  Milledge Bonham was not only a general but, previously, a member of the U.S. Congress and subsequently a member of the Confederate Congress.

The battle of First Bull Run was a shock to some of the citizens of Washington, DC, who had driven out in their carriages to witness what they assumed would be a brief and victorious spectacle.  Even the Federal troops had paused to pick berries on their march to the battlefield.  But First Bull Run resulted in 3,000 Union casualties and another 1,750 Confederate casualties, light when compared to later major battles but nevertheless a jolt, especially to the North.

And there was another sign that not only gallant soldiers would suffer losses in the war.  During the battle, an 85-year-old widow, Judith Carter Henry, was unable to leave her bedroom during the battle raging around Henry House.  An artillery shell came through the bedroom wall and blasted off one of the widow’s feet.  She died later from that and other wounds caused by the shell.

 

John Nance Garner and the Paradox of Loyalty

“I have always done what I thought was best for my country, never varying unless I was advised that two-thirds of the Democrats were for a bill and then I voted for it.”–John Nance Garner

The man that FDR called “Mr. Common Sense” was also the quintessential party man for most of his political life, arriving in Congress in 1902 and then going along to get along until he became House Speaker in December, 1931. 

The above quote, probably delivered with tongue hidden in cheek, did nevertheless come close to summarizing his guiding principles: country first…so long as the Democratic Party was not harmed in the process.  For decades, his personal principles and those of the party were things he could reconcile.

Surely one of the most quotable of vice presidents, especially when discussing the office itself, “Cactus Jack” Garner was the House majority leader before he became speaker.  The late Twenties was a time when politicians could be fiercely loyal to their parties but still find common ground with members of the other party. 

Garner was a friend of Republican Speaker Nicholas Longworth, the dapper husband of famed Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth.  The two of them held forth at the “Bureau of Education,” a boozy meeting place that followed Speaker Joe Cannon’s “Boar’s Head” example and later became the even more famous “Board of Education” presided over by Sam Rayburn. 

The loyalty that marked Jack Garner as minority leader was different from the uncompromising party loyalty of today.  He and Longworth, along with other key players, would hammer out bipartisan deals, and it was loyalty to those deals and not to narrow partisan positions that Garner would generate and enforce.  Party loyalty was less to exotic or extreme positions than it was to broad agreements; enforcing that kind of loyalty was in fact aimed at reducing the impact of extreme views.

But late in Herbert Hoover’s term, things changed.  The parties became sharply divided over the response to the Depression. Garner at first tried to work with the administration, but soon realized that, despite his distaste for government spending, more public works projects had to be forthcoming if the country were to recover.

Suddenly party discipline took on a different aspect.  Sam Rayburn remarked that the new Speaker Garner was determined to bind Democratic members to whatever consensus had been reached on relief legislation, and Garner himself said that “if they didn’t stay bound, I’d put ’em down in my book and they’d never get through paying for it.”

At this point, Garner believed that what was good for the country was also what the Democratic party wanted.  With growing Democratic strength, Garner’s prospects to remain House Speaker, a job that he loved, would be solid.

With no presidential ambitions himself, Garner nevertheless became the candidate of choice for the irrepressible William Randolph Hearst, along with those who wanted a “Democratic Coolidge,” a man who would not exercise the power of the office to the fullest.

Garner began to gain a little ground at the 1932 Democratic Convention in Chicago as successive ballots were counted.  FDR then realized that in order to break the deadlock between him and Al Smith he would need Garner’s delegates, especially those from Mississippi.  Roosevelt loyalist Jim Farley met with Sam Rayburn, Garner’s representative at the convention, in the hotel room of one of the senators from Mississippi.

Offered the vice presidency, Garner feared that without his assent the convention would end up with a tepid compromise candidate who would lead the party to another defeat, the fate of Democratic nominee John W. Davis in 1928.

WARM SPIT?

Already on record as saying “I don’t want to spend the next four years counting the buttons on another man’s coattails,” Garner still accepted.  At one point he also mused that the job might be “a nice way to taper off my career.”  (Late in life, he also said that accepting the vice presidency was “the only demotion I ever had.”)

Despite his own misgivings about the office, his election was wildly popular. On inauguration day, some 400 House members and another 150 members-elect escorted him to the senate chambers, including many Republicans.

The famous quote attributed to him about the office–that it “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit”– first appeared, in somewhat different form, in a 1968 book by former FDR braintruster R. G. Tugwell.  Tugwell was one among several of FDR’s intellectual advisers who looked down on Garner, much as John F. Kennedy’s family and advisers did on Lyndon Johnson.  To him, Garner was “shrewd, narrow, vulgar, and philistine.” 

The feelings were mutual.  “I have more honest affection for him [FDR] in my little finger than they have in their whole bodies,” Garner said.  In this, he was unlike LBJ.

In any case, Tugwell wrote that he “could still hear the guffaw” of FDR when the new president heard what Cactus Jack said about the “worth” of the vice presidency.

The late Texas Congressman O.C. Fisher, who wrote a biography of Garner (no easy task, see author’s note), claimed that Garner told him that he did not say “warm spit,” but instead said “warm piss.”  According to Fisher, Garner said the “pantywaists” who wrote about the issue didn’t have the guts to relate it the way he said it.

Cactus Jack had even more to say about the vice presidency.  It was, for example, “the spare tire of government.”  But perhaps the greatest story of all about his view of the office was reported in the Houston Post in 1967.  Meeting up with a circus clown at the site of political rally, Garner said, “I am vice president of the United States.  You’d better stick around for a while–you might pick up some new ideas.”

Loyalty, the First Term, and Huey Long

As a conservative Democrat, Garner didn’t personally support all of the New Deal proposals during the famous Hundred Days, but his official position was that it was both “good politics and good patriotism” to support the president. “Sometimes conditions in a country justify temporary violations of deep principles of government,” he said, and “if ever there was such a time, it is now.”

But there were limits, even in the first term.  Garner wouldn’t make speeches, travel to other countries, or disrupt his home life and privacy with the glad-handing duties of the job. He refused protection from the secret service, saying, in words that seem so anachronistic in our day: “I don’t want those constables protecting me.  There isn’t anybody crazy enough to shoot the vice president.”

He was a significant force in managing relations with congress, however, and continued to chair the Bureau of Education meetings in a room near the Senate floor.  One observer later said, “the whiskey vapor would come flowing into the chamber from the formal office, along with the laughter.”

Garner disliked demagogues as much as he despised disloyalty, and Senator Huey Long of Louisiana hit both nerves.

When Long was filibustering FDR’s National Recovery Act, he told Garner, presiding over the senate, that he wanted Garner to make all the other senators stay and listen to Long’s rantings.

In the first place, the senator from Louisiana should not ask that,” Garner said. “In the second place, it would be cruel and unusual punishment.”

To his friend Will Rogers, Garner said, “Will, sometimes I think the hearing in my right ear and the vision in my right eye aren’t as good as they used to be…Long sits on my right…I may not be able to hear or see Huey this morning.”

But the best was yet to come.  One day, Long stood up in the senate chamber and said: “Mr. President, I rise to make a parliamentary inquiry.  How should a senator who is half in favor of this bill and half against it cast his vote?”

Garner’s last nerve having been reached, he answered sharply: “Get a saw and saw yourself in two.  That’s what you ought to do anyway.”

Loyalty Divided–the Second Term

Garner told friends that he and the president made a deal on inauguration day in 1937, the beginning of their second terms in office: they both would serve out the term and then retire.  Some disagreements had occurred between them, but Cactus Jack was still on the team.

On February 5, 1937, the president stunned Garner and other top advisers when he announced his plan to introduce legislation that would expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 judges.  It is interesting to note that Garner was less disturbed about FDR trying to seize too much power than he was about the president’s high-handed way of presenting such a controversial bill without reaching a prior consensus with party leaders, including the vice president.

(As to the merits of the court packing scheme, Garner said, “no president can control that Court.”)

When the bill came to the senate for a vote, Garner was seen to hold his nose and then give a vigorous thumbs down at the announcement of the bill.  Then he went home to Uvalde.   Roosevelt was angry, as one would expect.

Contacted at home in Texas, Garner placidly told reporters that his departure was no protest.  “I asked the boss,” he said, “and he told me it was all right for me to go fishing.”

An even more serious break happened when FDR decided to purge rebellious conservative Democrats by personally campaigning for their opponents during the primary elections of 1938.  Not only were many of these men personal friends of Garner, but, as he told FDR, “you can’t defeat the Southern Democrats and if you defeat the Democrats in the North you will get Republicans instead.”

Garner was right.  The party lost 81 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. Much of FDR’s agenda died in the Congress of 1939.

“The Worst Mistake I Ever Made”

As the election of 1940 approached, Garner was increasingly uneasy with the president’s consolidation of power. FDR had already paved the way to make the choice of a VP rest with him rather than with convention power brokers–a deal that he might not have been able to make if Garner had not been the incumbent.

In 1939, Garner made history by becoming the first sitting vice president to announce his own candidacy against the president whom he had served.  Garner had had enough.  The loyalty that had abetted his ascent to the speakership and then to the vice presidency had now turned inward, to his own principles.  Surely some of his motivation also came because of his alienation from the president and those now closest to him, a situation to which Garner himself had contributed.

This change did not serve Garner well politically.  After Hitler invaded the low countries and then France, the country did not want a different president.  Garner, who never blamed FDR personally but rather “the boss’s” increasingly liberal inner circle, retired to Uvalde, vowing never to return to Washington.  He never did.

Accepting the vice presidency out of loyalty to the party was “the worst mistake I ever made,” he said later.  Had he been speaker during FDR’s presidency, Garner reflected, “I think I could have talked him out of a lot of things…I would have had no desire to dictate his decisions, but there would have been times when I would have told him what he could not do.”

Author’s Note:  Biographies of Garner are few.  He burned all of his official papers in Uvalde, in 1947.  I have relied heavily on the following articles on John Nance Garner:

John Nance Garner–32nd Vice President, the Senate Historical Office

John Nance Garner and the Vice Presidency: In Search of the Proverbial Bucket, by Patrick Cox, Ph.D.



Roy Orbison: A Texan Not So Lonely

Though not so dark and lonely as his songs made him seem, Roy Kelton Orbison had a lot of pain in his life.  He absorbed that pain and transformed it with dramatic lyrics and a three-octave voice, a one-two punch of emotion and sound that hit teenagers of the early Sixties right where they lived.

He sang about the “Pretty Womanand lots of other women besides, many of them variations of his first, tragic love—Claudette, whose name he also used in one of his earliest songs.  That was in 1958, and the Everly Brothers recorded “Claudette” as the flipside to “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”  

But Roy was no pretty man.  Needing coke-bottle glasses by the tender age of four, the young kid from Vernon, and later the big town of Wink, also took to dying his hair coal black while still in his teens to cover up the early onset of gray.  And then there were the ears, which could have been switched with LBJ’s without leaving anyone the wiser.

Beginning in 1956, Roy recorded four songs for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records—thanks to a good word from Johnny Cash.  The original man in black had heard Roy when they had appeared on the same local TV show in West Texas. Roy’s first song for Sun made a brief appearance on the charts, rising to number 59. “Ooby-Dooby” was not a taste of what was to come.  But it was the only success he had at Sun Records.

It was the heyday of Sun: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash all signed with Sam Phillips.  Roy couldn’t match their success.  Phillips thought Roy was a good enough guitar player, but wasn’t that impressed with his voice.  And then there were the looks.  Up against Elvis, Fabian, and the other pretty boys of the Fifties, the young man from Wink, pale-skinned and shy, seemed to have little chance. 

Roy had already seen one pretty boy make good, back in college.  At what was then North Texas State College in Denton, he saw the young man who made a career out of sweetness and light make it to the big time.  While Roy was out working in the oil field and playing occasional gigs with his band The Teen Kings, a smiling, soft-voiced Pat Boone got the record contract. With failing grades in his geology classes, Roy dropped out of school.

But in 1960, Roy collaborated with his friend Joe Melson on a song.  The Everly Brothers turned it down.  Roy knew Elvis well by then and went by Graceland to pitch the song to the King.  Elvis was asleep and Roy decided to give the song a try himself. RCA gave Roy a chance to record it.  Only the Lonely” not only brought the shy singer to light but it did so in a way that introduced the world to the range of his voice.

The next year was even bigger: “Running Scared”; “Love Hurts,” later covered magnificently by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris; “Crying,” with k.d. laing; and “Candy Man.”  Now Roy had a number 1 song in “Running Scared,” and a pair of number 2 songs with “Only the Lonely” and “Crying.”

Then came “Dream Baby” in 1962; “In Dreams” in 1963; and, finally, “Pretty Woman” in 1964.  Roy was 28 and hitting the big time in both the U.S. and the U.K., where he became known as the “Big O.”  He had all the money he needed, enough to fill a warehouse with cars he bought on a whim, sometimes following a car he saw and liked and making the driver a generous cash offer on the spot.

In 1963, his fame in the U.K. resulted in his being the headliner on a tour, along with a young group of kids from Liverpool. Roy got to England and saw all the press the Beatles were receiving.  “What’s a Beatle?” he asked, evidently within hearing of John Lennon.  Lennon tapped Roy on the shoulder and said, “I am.”

They soon got along well, with Roy becoming good friends with Lennon and a close friend of George Harrison.  But the Beatles persuaded Roy to go on first, letting them become the headline act. 

When Roy opened the next performance, the audience shouted for 14 encores, leaving the Fab Four standing impatiently offstage.  After the 14th encore, the boys restrained Roy from going back on stage.

Roy had left his thick glasses on a plane in Alabama before taking off for England.  The only other pair he had were black-rimmed Waverly sunglasses.  He put them on, and people began to wonder if he was blind when they saw him perform.  He saw well enough, but he kept the shades as part of his act, finding in them and in his black clothing a persona that seemed to compensate for his lack of good looks.  And it didn’t hurt that the shades gave a shy man a way to hide his eyes.

When Roy met Claudette Frady in Odessa, Texas, she was only 16 and he was 21.  A beautiful high-school dropout, Claudette was a source of both pain and inspiration for Roy.   When “Pretty Woman” came out in 1964, Claudette, lonely and restless in Hendersonville, Tennessee, while Roy was on the road, had an affair with a contractor who was working on their home outside of Nashville.

According to an excellent magazine piece,  Roy Orbison: The Big “O”, Roy was seriously depressed by the affair and the subsequent divorce in Novemer. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t communicate and I certainly couldn’t write a song,” he said.

Roy and Claudette reconciled while he was recuperating from an illness, and they remarried in 1966.  By then, the boys from England had an edgier counterpart in the Rolling Stones; Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other voices of protest took over the charts. 

It was a time when Roy and Claudette could spend more time together, and he no doubt needed her badly as his career began to fade.  One day, about two months after they had remarried, they were out for a ride on the motorcycles they both loved.  A truck smashed into Claudette and knocked her off the bike and onto the side of the road.  Roy was riding a couple of blocks ahead.  He heard the sirens, looked back, and didn’t see Claudette.  When he reached the scene, she was dead.

“After Claudette’s death, Orbison was immobilized by grief,” the magazine story says. “‘It was a dark period,’ he recounted later. ‘All I was doing was surviving, trying to work my way out of the turmoil.’ After her funeral, he struggled to pen a hit and, as the years went by, his ballads fell out of step with the promiscuous, swinging ’60s. ‘The thrust of the war and drug-related songs, I didn’t relate to that at all,’ he reflected.”

Two years later, using his work as a way to fight his grief, Roy was touring once again in England, where his previous fame was less obscured by the songs of protest.  There, he received a phone call.  His father, Orbie, was taking care of the Hendersonville house and Roy’s three sons.  The boys were playing in the basement.  Some gasoline in one of Roy’s vintage cars ignited, and the house burned down.  Only Roy’s father and one son, three-year-old Wesley, survived.

And so here was the slug of pain that some of Roy’s earlier songs seemed to anticipate.  He was only 32, but his wife and two of his sons had died violently.  This time, he determined to get on with his life.  He remarried—a German girl of 17 he had met on tour—and built a new home in Tennessee.

In 1980, two years after Roy’s first heart attack at age 44, he and Emmylou Harris released the duet “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again,” and Roy was back on the charts—for a little while.  He also received his only Grammy during his lifetime.  The same year, Don McLean covered “Crying” and went up high in the charts.  In 1987, Roy made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The strangest turn in Roy’s career came in 1987 when David Leach’s disturbing noir classic, Blue Velvet, appeared in theaters across the country.  A do-wop song from the Fifties gave the film its title, but the tone of film itself was as far from the voice of a young Bobby Vinton as…as Wink is from London.

The use of his song In Dreams in the film, during two grotesque scenes, at first annoyed Roy.   The second of the scenes shows a deranged and Dennis Hopper viciously beating a young character played by Kyle MacLachlan, while the opening lines of Roy’s song are playing in the background:

A candy-colored clown they call the sandman

Tiptoes to my room every night

Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper:

“Go to sleep, everything is all right”

But, in truth, the actual song ends with lines that show “everything is all right” only in dreams. The song was used to bring home the brutal disillusionment of the young man in the movie, for what could be less like the sandman our mothers told us about than a crazed Dennis Hopper? Roy came to see the use of the song as artistically appropriate.  Regardless, the film helped boost Roy’s name into the consciousness of an America that had become enthralled by stories of lust, violence, and greed.  Roy was “in” again.

In 1988, he and his musical friends performed in a highly successful TV special based on his music.  Roy, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne then recorded The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One.  The album had reached number 10 on the charts when Roy died of his second heart attack on December 6, ten years after he had given up chain smoking.

Roy’s life, despite the pain, is a testament to more affirming dreams than the ones in his famous song.  “My life,” Roy said not long before his death, “is a never-ending dream. I take one day at a time and never look too far into the future.” 

The man in the Waverly shades, wearing black clothes, and singing songs of longing, was, in the end, much more in tune with his soaring voice than with the dark persona he had assumed.

His second wife, Barbara Jakob Orbison, said Roy “was born sunny-side up.”  She died at age 60 on the 23rd anniversary of his death.

Born April 23, 1936, in Vernon, Texas; died December 8, 1988, in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Here is Roy Orbison singing happy birthday to his son, Roy Jr. The accompanying photos are from Roy’s own birthday celebrations.

 

 

Remembering Sam Houston and San Jacinto

Post-San Jacinto: Gratification, ire for Houston

Revolution’s leader saw Texas’ statehood, then disaster.
By John Willingham / Special to the San Antonio Express-News
Published 12:02 a.m., Thursday, April 21, 2011

  • Gen. Sam Houston’s (1793-1863) defeat of Mexico’s army in Texas in 1836 led to eventual statehood.

    Photo: San Antonio Conservation Society / SA

    Gen. Sam Houston’s (1793-1863) defeat of Mexico’s army in…

Sam Houston’s improbable victory at San Jacinto 175 years ago, on April 21, 1836, opened the way for emigrants from the South to pour into the new Republic of Texas. Although not yet a state of the Union, Texas was another vast territory beckoning settlers who were eager for land, a natural extension of the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.

Like his mentor Andrew Jackson, Houston knew that the influx of U.S. citizens into Texas would lead to statehood. Both hoped the annexation of Texas would work to strengthen the Union rather than weaken it.

One great irony for Sam Houston was that the 1845 annexation of his beloved Texas, made possible by the earlier victory at San Jacinto, re-ignited the sectional argument over slavery that had been dormant since the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Annexation led to war with Mexico only four months later. That brought more territory into the Union, much of it south of the Missouri Compromise line and therefore open to slavery.

A young congressman named David Wilmot, D-Pa., proposed in 1846 that any new territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War not be open to slavery.

Houston, in the U.S. Senate after annexation, found himself arguing against the Wilmot Proviso, ironically in the same camp with his great enemy John C. Calhoun, D-S.C., the famous nullifier who had already opposed the nationalism of Jackson.

Debate over the Wilmot Proviso ran into 1848 when the Mexican War ended. Houston opposed it for a variety of reasons, but Calhoun used the issue to rally Southern Democrats to the cause of slavery, which he had already called a “positive good.”

Did the old Unionist Sam Houston believe that the flames of sectional enmity, having been fed by Calhoun and other radicals on both sides, could still be reduced by wise and skillful moderates? Never intimidated by Calhoun’s brilliance, Houston as a senator was capable of besting the Senate giant in debate.

If so, he must have been heartened by passage of the Compromise of 1850, which gave the Union a reprieve. Houston argued against Calhoun — and against Southern interests — when he supported the compromise in a famous speech. In words that Abraham Lincoln would use a decade later, Houston told the Senate that “a nation divided against itself cannot stand.”

Houston won the Battle of San Jacinto, dreaming Texas would soon be a crown jewel of the Union he loved. The ultimate irony was that, when he died, this champion of both Texas glory and national greatness had been cast aside by most Texans as they disdained further compromise and rushed headlong to the doomed Southern cause.

Houston didn’t live to see the full fruits of his victories on and off the field of battle or to enjoy the vindication of being right about the Union. But he did leave much for us to honor in his name.

John Willingham is author of “The Edge of Freedom,” a novel about the Texas Revolution. He divides his time between Portland, Ore., and Austin.

Read more: http://www.mysanantonio.com/default/article/By-John-Willingham-1345868.php#ixzz1KAXsESz6

 

 

Waco–The City Where “Waco” Didn’t Happen

Note: This article originally appeared on April 19, 2013, on the History News Network HNN.us, under the title:

Waco–The City Where the “Waco” Siege Didn’t Actually Happen

April 19, 2013, is the twentieth anniversary of the bloody end to the “Waco” Siege at the Branch Davidian’s Mount Carmel compound–a forlorn place that is, in fact, 13.8 miles east of the city of Waco.

I do not know who the first person was to assign the name of “Waco” to the terrible events that took place 20 years ago. What I do know is that he or she did a great disservice to Waco, often pronounced “Wacko,” as I have heard repeatedly whenever I tell someone that I was born and raised in the city.

Let me be quick to own that Waco has had its share of problems, one of them a so-called act of God, a 1953 tornado that killed more than 100 people and blew away much of downtown. As a young boy, I watched from the picture window of my father’s real estate office about one and a half miles from the eye of the storm. The day turned completely dark, almost black, and downtown was never the same.

Then the feds closed a big Air Force base and a tactical fighter wing, and the people and the real estate market went, if not altogether south, then off to Austin, Houston, or Dallas.

And speaking of the South, Waco was the farthest extension of the Old South, sending soldiers off to the lost Confederate cause, including several generals. As an approximate end point for the reach of slavery, the city has had its share of tragic relapses to the harshness of Reconstruction, but now struggles more conventionally with the issue of race.

Waco is also associated with the Baptist denomination, mainly because Baylor University is located in the city. Baylor can be the butt of jokes, a few of them earned, but the university and its religion department are actually a significant moderating influence, in Texas and worldwide. Baylor also has excellent academic programs in business and law, and recently, engineering. 

Ann Richards was a Baylor grad, along with four other Texas governors, three U.S. Senators, about a dozen congressmen, and a U.S. ambassador.

I did not attend Baylor (one of my daughters did), and I do not live in Waco. Yet this business of referring to the city as the site of the siege and its fiery climax has bothered me for years, particularly since President George W. Bush decided to buy a ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Now Crawford, Texas, is a town of about 800 located exactly 24.4 miles west of the city of Waco. How many news datelines have begun something like this, “Crawford–We are at President Bush’s ranch near Crawford, Texas, where he just announced…”?

As I see it, the net geographical difference between being identified with a president versus becoming the name for a national tragedy is about 10.6 miles–the difference between the distances of Mount Carmel and Crawford from Waco. For otherwise, wouldn’t we have seen datelines saying, “Waco–President Bush announced from his ranch near here today that…”?

The closest town to Mount Carmel is Elk, a tiny hamlet of about 150 souls. Also nearby is the town of Hallsburg with a population of about 800. Depending on where one might be standing in these towns, the distance to Mount Carmel would be around 3 or 4 miles, or even less.

Now this is not an argument that the so-called “Waco Siege” now be referred to as the “Elk Siege” or the “Hallsburg Siege.” But there are, in truth, striking examples of how tragedies are not named for the towns near which (or even in) the cities where they occurred.

Thus we have the “Columbine” massacre, even though the high school has an address in Littleton, Colorado.  There are the “Aurora” theater shootings, referring to the Denver suburb less than nine miles out of town.

Columbine, in naming an awful event for the school in which it occurred, both narrows the location to an actual structure and reminds us that it was tragedy of the most terrible kind, one in which children were killed.  Yet naming an event for its exact location would seem to suggest a more logical name for the “Waco” siege: Mount Carmel.  For that is where the Davidian compound was located.  Not in Waco, Texas.

Instead of a Frontline documentary on “Waco–the Inside Story,” or the award-winning “Waco: the Rules of Engagement,” we would have “Mount Carmel: the Tragic Siege.”  But then we could have a dispute over naming a tragedy after the mountain where the prophet Elijah challenged each false, contending deity to make a sacrifice and then cause it to blaze; the one who succeeded could claim to be the true god.  The deities failed, but the sacrificial altar erupted in flames, destroying the altar, sacrifices, wood and stone.  The Bible says it was a real act of God.

(Note: On April 17, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, about 18 miles north of Waco.)

April 19, 2013, is the twentieth anniversary of the bloody end to the “Waco” Siege at the Branch Davidian’s Mount Carmel compound–a forlorn place that is, in fact, 13.8 miles east of the city of Waco.

I do not know who was the first person to assign the name of “Waco” to the terrible events that took place 20 years ago. What I do know is that he or she did a great disservice to Waco, often pronounced “Wacko,” as I have heard repeatedly whenever I tell someone that I was born and raised in the city.

Let me be quick to own that Waco has had its share of problems, one of them a so-called act of God, a 1953 tornado that killed more than 100 people and blew away much of downtown. As a young boy, I watched from the picture window of my father’s real estate office about one and a half miles from the eye of the storm. The day turned completely dark, almost black, and downtown was never the same.

Then the feds closed a big Air Force base and a tactical fighter wing, and the people and the real estate market went, if not altogether south, then off to Austin, Houston, or Dallas.

And speaking of the South, Waco was the farthest extension of the Old South, sending soldiers off to the lost Confederate cause, including several generals. As an approximate end point for the reach of slavery, the city has had its share of tragic relapses to the harshness of Reconstruction, but now struggles more conventionally with the issue of race.

Waco is also associated with the Baptist denomination, mainly because Baylor University is located in the city. Baylor can be the butt of jokes, a few of them earned, but the university and its religion department are actually a significant moderating influence, in Texas and worldwide. Baylor also has excellent academic programs in business and law, and recently, engineering. 

Ann Richards was a Baylor grad, along with four other Texas governors, three U.S. Senators, and about a dozen congressmen.

I did not attend Baylor (one of my daughters did), and I do not live in Waco. Yet this business of referring to the city as the site of the siege and its fiery climax has bothered me for years, particularly since President George W. Bush decided to buy a ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Now Crawford, Texas, is a town of about 800 located exactly 24.4 miles west of the city of Waco. How many news datelines have begun something like this, “Crawford–We are at President Bush’s ranch near Crawford, Texas, where he just announced…”?

As I see it, the net geographical difference between being identified with a president versus becoming the name for a national tragedy is about 10.6 miles–the difference between the distances of Mount Carmel and Crawford from Waco. For otherwise, wouldn’t we have seen datelines saying, “Waco–President Bush announced from his ranch near here today that…”?

The closest town to Mount Carmel is Elk, a tiny hamlet of about 150 souls. Also nearby is the town of Hallsburg with a population of about 800. Depending on where one might be standing in these towns, the distance to Mount Carmel would be around 3 or 4 miles, or even less.

Now this is not an argument that the so-called “Waco Siege” now be referred to as the “Elk Siege” or the “Hallsburg Siege.” But there are, in truth, striking examples of how tragedies are not named for the towns near which (or even in) the cities where they occurred.

Thus we have the “Columbine” massacre, even though the high school has an address in Littleton, Colorado.  There are the “Aurora” theater shootings, referring to the Denver suburb less than nine miles out of town.

Columbine, in naming an awful event for the school in which it occurred, both narrows the location to an actual structure and reminds us that it was tragedy of the most terrible kind, one in which children were killed.  Yet naming an event for its exact location would seem to suggest a more logical name for the “Waco” siege: Mount Carmel.  For that is where the Davidian compound was located.  Not in Waco, Texas.

Instead of a Frontline documentary on “Waco–the Inside Story,” or the award-winning “Waco: the Rules of Engagement,” we would have “Mount Carmel: the Tragic Siege.”  But then we could have a dispute over naming a tragedy after the mountain where the prophet Elijah challenged each false, contending deity to make a sacrifice and then cause it to blaze; the one who succeeded could claim to be the true god.  The deities failed, but the sacrificial altar erupted in flames, destroying the altar, sacrifices, wood and stone.  The Bible says it was a real act of God.

(Note: On April 17, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, about 18 miles north of Waco.)

The Cowboy Strike of 1883 and the Demise of Old Tascosa

A cowboy strike, in Texas?  In a state now known for its right to work laws and general hostility toward unions?  And cowboys–well, let’s just say that they are not often associated with the words “collective” and “bargaining.”

Yet these allegedly lonesome men on horseback, working from “can see” until “can’t see” in heat and dust, lightning storms, and northers cold enough to freeze them to their saddles, did rise up against big cattle syndicates back in  March of 1883.  And they fought the brief but good fight to regain the rights they had lost to greedy or inept corporate ranchers who had taken over the open range that fit the cowboy soul like a well-worn glove.

Before the syndicates moved in there was a sense of community on the smaller spreads. The best ranches brought together tough, hard-working, essentially decent and practical men who respected one another and shared not only the elements and the endless plains but a heritage of frontier cooperation born of necessity: In 1883, the Comanche threat was less than a decade in the past.

A cowboy then, on one of the smaller ranches, could take some calves in lieu of pay and combine them with mavericks he had “gathered” on the open range to form his own small herd, good for sales or to supplement whatever victuals he usually had from his own fire or from one communal cast-iron pot.  The longer he stayed with a ranch, the more likely he was to have two or more horses to use, and the horses he was dealt improved with his tenure.  This was a real life with a stake.

The syndicates came in, understanding the business world but often very little of the ranching life on the plains.  Profits tended to be as low as their ignorance and speculative fever were high; so, as their heirs might do today, they blamed the people who actually did the work for the problem.  They cut wages, disallowed horses for personal use, stopped the gathering of mavericks, and offered no more calves for pay.  Then…they forbade drinking and gambling.  This was not much of a life, with no stake.

Tom Harris was a seasoned and respected hand at the LS Ranch and decided he had seen enough.  He rounded up some men from the LIT, the LX, the LE and the T Anchor, and made out a list of demands:

 

We, the undersigned cowboys of Canadian River, do by these presents agree to bind ourselves into the following obligations, viz:

First: that we will not work for less than $50 per mo. And we furthermore agree no one shall work for less than $50 per mo. after 31st of Mch.

Second: Good cooks shall also receive $50 per month.

Third: Any one running an outfit shall not work for less than $75 per mo.

Any one violating the above obligations shall suffer the consequences. Those not having funds to pay board after March 31 will be provided for for 30 days at Tascosa.

No one specified what made a good cook, or how much a bad cook should receive. Not much, probably.

Twenty-four cowboys signed the proclamation.  The number of cowboys who supported it thereafter was as variable as the disappearing mavericks along the Canadian.  Maybe upwards of three hundred had some ties to the strike.  The LE and T Anchor fired the strikers right away; more cunning by far were the LS and LIT.  They offered piddling increases to cowboys who stayed, and then they fired the rest. Then they picked up the leavings from the other outfits by paying the marginally higher wages, at least for a while.

The out of work cowboys drifted into Tascosa, as famous as Dodge City in its time as a stopping place for the big drives headed north.

The cattlemen would pause and water their herds along the Canadian, leaving the beeves under the disgruntled watch of the few hands who were not allowed to go into Tascosa for recreation.  Here is what state historian Bill O’Neal tells us about Tascosa at the time:

“A cluster of dives a quarter of a mile east of Main Street was dubbed Hogtown, partially because of the presence of such less than glamorous ‘sporting women’ as Homely Ann, Gizzard Lip, Rowdy Kate, Box Car Jane, Panhandle Nan, Slippery Sue, Canadian Lily, and Frog Lip Sadie. In 1878, Billy the Kid and four other fugitives from New Mexico’s Lincoln County War arrived with 150 stolen horses, enjoying Tascosa’s bawdy pleasures for several weeks. During the 1880s there was so much rustling in the area that Pat Garrett was hired to lead a band of ‘Home Rangers.'”

In the midst of such gentility, the strikers claimed that they would be peaceful.  Most probably were.  Newspapers covered the strike and reported gossip likely planted by the syndicates that the strikers were plotting to kill the owners, burn down fences, and kill syndicate cattle at random.  None of this happened.

On the other hand, a disturbing number of cows began to disappear from the syndicate herds.

Only two months after the strike began on March 31, 1883, it was over.  The efforts of Tom Harris and his comrades did not so much as delay the May roundup.  If they did nothing else, though, they gave the late, great Elmer Kelton a subject and title for his novel The Day the Cowboys Quit.  In those pages find the real dust of the plains.

As for Tascosa, whether from Hogtown or the few respectable precincts, some remained optimistic.  The railroad would come to town, finding its way past buffalo bones and through the attenuated grass. The syndicates would pour cattle into waiting trains, which would blow out steam and sound their whistles in their urgency to depart.  Surely some of the money would come back to the plains.

There are two books on Tascosa.  In reviewing John L. McCarty’s Maverick Town, in 1947, Walter Prescott Webb was characteristically direct regarding the fate of Tascosa: “It is useless to look on a modern map for Tascosa because the town is not there.  It died so long ago that the map makers have forgotten it.”

The Rock Island railroad had bypassed Tascosa in favor of Amarillo.  The Oldham County seat moved to Vega.  In the end, years later, only the former prostitute Frenchy McCormick remained in Tascosa, her husband and tavern-keeper, Mickey, having gone to his reward twenty-nine years before her death in 1941.  She had continued to live alone in their crumbling adobe home, without electricity and running water, insisting that Tascosa would come back to life.

Before Tascosa died, a volatile brew of syndicate hired guns, disgruntled ranch hands, and the insalubrious atmosphere of Hogtown erupted in a gunfight in 1886 at the Jenkins Saloon. Unlike the “ambush” of Billy The Kid, Webb says, this “was a real fight between the cowboys [gunmen] of the big LS outfit and the little men of Tascosa.  Three LS cowboys were killed, along with an innocent and too-curious ‘poverty-laden’ immigrant named Jess Sheets.” 

A great review of the more recent book on the town, Frederick Nolan’s Tascosa: Its Life and Gaudy Times, came from Bill Neal in 2008: “Tascosa was located in a land beyond the law, a fact that many frontiersmen found appealing….Pioneer cowman Charles Goodnight pronounced Tascosa ‘the most lawless place on the continent.'”  It was said that one resident, perhaps Bill Gatlin, “used to kill men just to see if his pistol was loaded.”

Reading Neal’s review, I came across the name of Cape (Caleb Berg) Willingham, and was reminded that some of my relatives hailed from western Oklahoma and West Texas.  Cape Willingham had a solid reputation as a lawman and rancher, indicating that he actually knew how to do some practical things.  I therefore dismissed him as a possible ancestor until I found out he had also run a saloon.

Said to have been the first sheriff of Tascosa, he carried the true standard weapon of lawmen in those days, a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun.  One day, while relaxing in the Equity Saloon, one of the town’s few “respectable ladies” burst in and screamed that a man outside had just killed her duck.  Perhaps intrigued that, for once, a killing had not involved a human, the sheriff went outside to investigate.  His concern was also enhanced because he had instituted what may have been one of the state’s earliest gun-control measures–he had banned firearms from Tascosa.

Clay Coppedge of the Country World’s Texas Trails tells the story:

“The duck killer turned out to be Fred Leigh, foreman of the LS Ranch, who had a habit of taking his guns to town in defiance of Willingham’s ban. The sheriff notified Leigh that he was now indebted to the woman for the fair market value of a duck and he might have been trying to figure out an exact sum when Leigh did something a lot dumber than shooting a duck — he went for his pistol. Willingham blew him out of the saddle with his shotgun, which ended the negotiations.”

Now, there remains in me a trace of the boy from Waco, Texas, who played cowboys and Indians, and “Army,” and watched westerns on TV, and that would get a kick out of claiming Cape Willingham as an ancestor.  And the duck story almost pushes me to the point of prevarication.  But, alas, Cape’s branch of the clan came west from Virginia through Georgia, and mine through Tennessee, so any connection is remote.

Cape Willingham, Charles Goodnight, the good hand Tom Harris, and the woman with the dead duck– all would be amazed to know that in 1939, not far from Boot Hill in old Tascosa, Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch was born.  Frenchy McCormick was still around by then to see it, and no doubt feisty at age 87.  And that, my friends, one-ups the duck.