Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lone Star eccentrics

Twenty-three million people, give or take a few, live in Texas. And some of them are not like you and me. In fact, some of them are downright eccentric.

While eccentric can be a nice word for weird, not all eccentrics are weird. But all eccentrics are different, marching to the proverbial beat of their own drummer.

Mineral Wells educator-writer John Kuhn is just out with his first book, a look at a hundred or so living and dead Lone Star eccentrics, from the poker playing Amarillo Slim to the late border blaster radio personality Wolfman Jack. Fittingly enough, he calls the book “Texas Eccentrics.” (Atriad Press, 272 pages, $19.95.)

For organizational purposes, Kuhn grouped his characters into five broad moderately alliterative categories: Bizarre Businesspeople, Peculiar Personalities, Strange Sports Figures, Atypical Artists and Other Oddballs.

To put things in perspective, Kuhn starts the book with an introductory essay on eccentricism Texas-style, which is definitely more noticeable here than some other places. He does not miss the irony that he lives and works in a town once famous for a hotel called the Crazy Water.

Reading “Texas Eccentrics” will give you plenty of material for witty chit chat and possibly serve to remind you that compared with some others, you’re downright normal.

One downside to the book is that it offers no list of sources, a slight eccentricity than can be forgiven in favor of the interesting reading it offers.

Ghost Stories

The weather’s cool and the Halloween decorations are up. What better time to sit by the fire place and read a few ghost stories?

Ghost stories have been around since Shakespeare struggled as a budding young playwright and even before, but for generations, the majority of the tales passed by word of mouth. Finally, folklorists and others began capturing them and giving them true immortality in print.

Over the last decade or so, ghost books have become something of a haunted cottage industry. We still speak of spooks, but now we write of frights. A quick count of Texas ghost books shows at least 16, though I’m sure I’ve missed some titles.

One of the newest in this growing boo-oeuvre is Brian Righi’s “Spirits of Dallas: The Haunting of Big D.” (Schiffer, 176 pages, $14.95.)

No book on Dallas ghosts would be complete with a chapter on the White Rock Lake Ghost, one of Texas’ prime ghost tales. I won’t spoil the story here, but if you visit that part of Dallas at night, best not to pick up any hitchhikers.

Righi also writes about Hotel Adolphus, Big D’s finest hostelry since 1912. Yep, it’s haunted, but no doubt by the more affluent of the spirit set. They seem to favor where the old ballroom used to be on the 19th floor.

He also covers supposedly haunted Preston Road, a busy thoroughfare first blazed by pre-Columbian people and later declared the national road of the Republic of Texas as well as assorted other haunted buildings, houses and of course cemeteries.

In addition to telling all the ghost stories connected to Dallas he could, pardon the expression, dig up, Righi lists area paranormal investigation groups, ghost tours and commercial and fund-raising haunted houses.

To borrow from one of the author’s sub-titles, a reader gets plenty of “boo for the buck” with this book.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Salt Warriors

Thomas Zickefoose had a notably unusual last name and one other distinction. When he died at 93 in 1942, the last participant in the El Paso Salt War was gone.

Of course, the Salt War is almost as little-known as ex-Texas Ranger Zickefoose. The “war” played out over a 12-week period in 1877 in San Elizario, one of the small communities along the Rio Grande at El Paso del Norte, the Pass of the North, eventually incorporated into the city of El Paso.

The war was born of a dispute over a substance almost as important as water: salt. Everyone knows salt makes food taste better and can aggravate hypertension, but salt also is important in preserving meat (which was critical before refrigeration), curing hides and extracting silver from ore.

Early Anglo explorers noted the presence of an extensive salt lake beneath the Guadalupe Mountains, but people had been using that salt supply as long as anyone had lived in the El Paso valley.

Trouble quickly developed when an Austin banker and his son-in-law laid legal claim to the salt beds.

C.L. “Doc” Sonnichsen wrote a book on the Salt War in 1961. For 47 years that title stood as the definitive book on that bloody conflict. But no more. From now on, the DB will be Paul Cool’s “Salt Warriors” (Texas A&M University Press, $24.95.)

A well-respected historian, the late Dr. Sonnichsen only devoted 61 pages to the conflict. Cool, on the other hand, has given the episode near encyclopedic treatment.

While Sonnichsen proved the story could be told in fewer words, it is a complicated tale. Cool has done a great job not only of mining for new information, but putting it all into a book that’s both comprehensive and readable.

In researching the subject exhaustively, the author not only turned up new material while reversing some long-standing misperceptions, outright errors or embellishments, he came to see the Salt War as more than a feud over property rights. He casts it as an insurrection.

And though the events he describes happened more than 130 years ago, the cultural tensions that helped fuel the war remain to this day along the border.

In his final chapter, Cool tells what became of all the major players who survived the initial hostilities. That’s where he notes Zickefoose’s death. As Cool wrote, “He was probably the last ‘salt warrior’ to have traded bullets in San Elizario over what Boundary Commissioner John Russell Bartlett had called ‘nothing but the saline incrustations of a dried up lake.”

Finally, either I’m getting older or A&M Press used mighty small type to get all of the author’s information into 360 pages, but other than that, “Salt Warriors” is a Cool book – literally and figuratively.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Two solid new books on early Texas

Every wordsmith interested in writing about the events of yesterday should print the following quotation, frame the words, and hang them in view of their computer:

“No harm’s done to history by making it something someone would want to read.”

Those words come from David McCullough, best-selling writer of books on important figures of the past, but I read them in the introduction to a good book by another fine writer-historian, Stephen Hardin.

Hardin’s book is “Texian Macabre: A Melancholy Tale of a Hanging in Houston.” (Abilene: State House Press, 325 pages, $24.95.)

Hardin found McCullough’s quote useful in explaining what he hoped to accomplish with his new book: Use an interesting story to help readers better understand what Texas, particularly the nascent city of Houston, was like during its days as an independent republic.

The story focuses on David James Jones, a survivor of the Goliad massacre (see below) and obviously a committed participant in the Battle of San Jacinto, who went from war hero to convicted murderer in little over a-year-and-a-half.

Beyond that, “Texian Macabre” sheds light on the state of law enforcement back when Texans called themselves Texians. (Answer: Pretty lax until the movers and shakers got exercised over the conduct of “rowdy loafers” like Jones, who had the honor of being the guest of honor at one of Texas’ earlier legal hangings.)

Reading Hardin’s overview of the art and science of hanging, and its affect on the human body, will possibly break you of ever wearing a neck tie again if you are a man. No matter one’s gender, if hanging still were the official means of execution in Texas, Hardin’s description of it would surely serve as a crime deterrent.

The detailed pen-and-ink drawings of Gary S. Zaboly, who also illustrated Hardin’s excellent history of the Texas Revolution, “Texas Iliad,” further enhance Hardin’s quite readable story. Another plus is the reader-friendly design of the book – a reasonable-sized typeface with ample “leading” between lines.

While Hardin definitely tells a macabre story in this book, it’s a fun to read, thoroughly researched look at life in the Bayou City 171 years ago. Definitely, no harm has been done to history in the writing of this excellent book.

* * *

More formal in tone than Hardin’s book, but no less well-searched and presented, is Jay A. Stout’s “Slaughter at Goliad: The Mexican Massacre of 400 Texas Volunteers.”

Published by the prestigious Naval Institute Press, the 242-page book sells for $29.95.

Though not as well known as the fall of the Alamo or the Texas victory at San Jacinto, at Goliad on March 27, 1836 more Texians lost their lives than in any other engagement during the revolution that freed Texas from Mexico. In fact, as Stout points out, for a good while the massacre of most of Col. James Fannin’s men (and his subsequent brutal execution only two feet in front of a firing squad) stood as one of the largest one-day military losses in American history.

Stout is a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, obviously schooled in military tactics and strategy. While the Texas Revolution did not involve the kind of warfare he participated in at supersonic speed, his background brings a lot to this book.

The author looks at the players on both sides, assessing what was in it for them and the quality (or lack) of leadership. In a particularly nice touch, the book is illustrated with black and white shots of modern-day re-enactors portraying the events covered in the book. Given that military re-enactors pride themselves on historical accuracy in terms of uniform and gear, it’s as if you’re look at vintage photographs even though photography did not exist back then. The book also features detailed maps.

Overall, “Slaughter at Goliad” is full of rich detail, including something not commonly known about Col. Fannin’s widow. In the summer of 1836, she tried to assassinate the captured Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at Velasco.

She did not succeed, I’m sure to the regret of many Texans at the time and not a few even today.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Roundin' up Ranger books

Only slightly newer than a brush-scarred Winchester Model 1895 with a rusty barrel, the concept of “One Ranger, One Riot” sure doesn’t hold when it comes to books about the Texas Rangers.

In little more than a year, eight non-fiction books dealing with individual Rangers or general Ranger history have been published. For serious collectors, genealogy buffs or those who simply enjoy reading about the Rangers from the days of the Wild West to modern times, here’s a round up of the latest additions to the Ranger bibliography:

Lawmen on the Texas Frontier: Rangers and Sheriffs by Candice DuCoin. (Round Rock: Riata Books, 260 pages, $30.)

This well-researched book shows that law enforcement tends to run in families, particularly the Jones family of Texas. Augustus H. Jones, the author’s great-great-great grandfather, rode as a volunteer Ranger in the 1830s. His nephew, Captain Frank Jones, died in a gunfight with Mexican outlaws along the Rio Grande near El Paso in 1893. While the story of his demise is well known, far less known is that the captain was one of seven brothers who served as Rangers. DuCoin did a great job in this book of “keeping up with the Jones’.”

Captain J.A. Brooks Texas Ranger by Paul N. Spellman. (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 272 pages, $24.95.)

One of the “four great captains” as proclaimed by former Adjutant General W.W. Sterling, Brooks transitioned from brush country Ranger commander to legislator to judge of the South Texas county named in his honor. A solid biography from Spellman, whose first book was a biography of Capt. John H. Rogers.

Unbridled Cowboy: Joseph B. Fussell, edited by E.R. Fussell. (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 278 pages, $19.95 in softcover.)

For Ranger history aficionados, this is a book best not judged by its title. Texan Joe Fussell ran away from home as a teenager and made his living primarily as a cowpuncher before becoming a career railroad man. In between, sometime after 1903, he worked for Capt. W.J. McDonald as an undercover Ranger to ferret out cattle rustlers.

Though not a Ranger when he did it, he rode alone into Mexico to exact revenge on cattle thieves who had killed a friend of his and nearly killed him. In the late 1940s, near the end of his life, Fussell wrote this memoir. The manuscript remained unpublished until his grandson took it up.

Having been invited to read this book before publication, I was asked to write a blurb for it. I happily did and will repeat what I said: “This is one of the most compelling memoirs I have ever read. Portions of the book, particularly [Fussell’s] sanguinary trip to Old Mexico, read like something from a Larry McMurtry novel.”

Captain Ransom, Texas Ranger: An American Hero, 1874-1918 by Pat Goodrich. (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing, 243 pages, $18 in softcover.) This book is about Capt. Henry Ransom. Born the year the Frontier Battalion was organized, he became a Ranger for the first time in 1905. Later, he commanded a Ranger company in the Rio Grande Valley during the turbulent and controversial days of Mexican Revolution. In 1918, he was shot to death in a Sweetwater hotel. Written by the captain’s granddaughter, this book profits from her access to family papers and photographs as well as from archival sources.

Law on the Last Frontier: Texas Ranger Arthur Hill by S.E. Spinks. (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 265 pages, $28.50.)

Hill became a Ranger in 1947 when Col. Homer Garrison headed the Department of Public Safety and served until he retired in 1974. With the exception of a brief stint as sergeant of Company B in Dallas, he spent his entire career in Alpine. Spinks, who is married to Hill’s grandson, did an excellent job on this book. She also benefited from access to family papers.

I got to know Hill when I worked as a reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times in the 1960s. One day in 1968 my editor dispatched me to Eldorado to cover an outbreak of oilfield vandalism connected to a labor dispute. When I got there, I found Hill and Ranger A.Y. Allee Jr., who worked out of Ozona. When I jokingly asked Allee why it took two Rangers for just one oilfield “riot,” he said, “Arthur’s here for the riot, I’m here to keep my eye on you.”

While that’s one incident not included in Spinks’ book, just about every other aspect of Hill’s long career is covered in this well-done biography.

One Ranger Returns by Joaquin Jackson with James L. Haley. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 237 pages, $24.95.)

This is Jackson’s sequel to his first memoir, a book which broke long-standing sales records for UT Press. In this highly readable follow-up, Jackson and Haley cover everything from the still-unsolved 1938 Frome murder near Van Horn to the 1966 farm worker’s strike in the Rio Grande Valley. If you read the first book, you’ll want this one.

Finally, two general histories of the Rangers have been published:

Lone Star Lawmen: The Second Century of the Texas Rangers by Robert Utley. (New York: Oxford University Press, 416 pages, $30.)

This is the second volume of former National Park Service historian Utley’s scholarly, no-punches-pulled history of the Rangers. In this volume, he takes the Ranger story to the turn of the 21st century. Like its predecessor, the book is well-researched. He calls it as he sees it.

The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900 by Mike Cox. (New York: Forge Books, 496 pages, $25.95.)

I won’t stoop to review my own book, but I’m not above plugging it. Let’s just say it’s gotten good reviews from readers more objective than the author. I’m putting the final touches on the second volume, which will carry the history of the Rangers through the creation of the new Company G along the lower Rio Grande border.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Why we all should celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Ask most Americans what happened on May 5, 1862 and they’re likely to guess it had something to do with the Civil War. Assuming they know when the Civil War occurred. Or that we had one.

Something probably did occur on that day during the Civil War, but what makes the date lastingly significant is what took place in Mexico. On that date, Cinco de Mayo, Mexican soldiers surprised even themselves in defeating a major military component of one of the most powerful nations in the world – France.

Those who do recognize Cinco de Mayo as a major Mexican holiday also celebrated in the Lone Star state still wrongly think the day is our sister republic’s version of the Fourth of July. Cinco de Mayo does not mark a declaration of independence. Rather, it celebrates an event that helped sustain Mexican independence. And even though Mexico won the Battle of Puebla on that day, it still had five years of guerilla warfare ahead before the country’s invaders returned to the land of wine and souffl├ęs.

That’s a very general summary of the thrust of a well-researched and well-written book by Austin author Donald W. Miles, “Cinco de Mayo: What Is Everybody Celebrating?” (Lincoln: iUniverse, 278 pages, $20.95.)

Like many problems, the French misadventure in Mexico – a tragicomedy if there ever was one -- started over money. Mexico owed France a bundle (as it did Great Britain and Spain). All three nations broke off diplomatic relations and sent troops to Mexico. But France’s Napoleon III was after more than a defaulted loan payment. Sending the largest force, he had hopes of resurrecting his nation’s long-held dream of a French empire in the New World. After all, the U.S. with its Monroe Doctrine was preoccupied in bloody national fratricide.

On May 5, 1862, however, Napoleon’s plan began to go awry. Texas-born Mexican Gen. Ignacio Zaragosa, at the town of Puebla, soundly defeated 6,000 attacking French soldiers. In fact, the French lost one man out of six.

While Texans who bother to give this episode any thought might see the French intrusion into Mexico as merely interesting, what happened back then was potentially a much bigger deal not only to Texas, but the whole United States.

Napoleon not only wanted the French tri-color forever flying over Mexico, he hoped to cozy up to the South and help them win against the North. Of course, while paying lip service to the Confederacy, he might just help himself to Texas while he was at it.

A Confederate diplomat in Belgium wrote President Jefferson Davis: “He [Napoleon III] will remain anxious for us to believe that he is silently our friend. Mexico first, and then Mexico as she was previous to her dismemberment [the Texas Revolution] is the resolutely and faithfully cherished and at which he aims.”

Miles does an excellent job of telling a complicated story, breaking each chapter of his book into a series of readable vignettes that are as entertaining as they are informative. He also has an eye for interesting detail and fascinating characters, from the boozy ranking French diplomat in Mexico (the same Pierre Saligny who occupied the French embassy in Austin during the early days of the Republic of Texas) to Princess Agnes Salm-Salm, who took her clothes off to try to convince a Mexican officer to release French-imposed Emperor Ferdinand Maximilian from prison following the collapse of his regime.

A couple of good examples of the interesting detail Miles turned up in his research (much of it at the Benson Latin American collection at the University of Texas) come in his description of the early stages of the fight at Puebla.

The French expected to march into Puebla unopposed. When the first Mexican artillery round exploded in their midst, one of the French commanders thought the Mexicans had merely fired a respectful salute. Even when it became obvious that they would have to charge uphill toward the highly-fortified town, the French rank-and-file took a coffee-and-pastry break.

I knew I was hooked on the book when browsing around before really getting serious about paging through it, I found a scene where a Mexican woman mooned French soldiers from the window of a convent. (No, the author did not explain whether the woman was a patriotic nun or just some senora strongly opposed to French intervention.) Whoever she may have been, the French found it tremendously insulting and began firing at the window. The woman dropped her skirt and disappeared, her point made.

With Miles’ new book, Texans now have two ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo – with food, drink and festivities or by partaking of a good read.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Texas authors winners/finalists for Spur Awards

Four writers with Texas roots will be presented Spur Awards or recognized as finalists by the Western Writers of America at the organization's annual meeting this summer.
Georgetown historian Robert Utley will get a Golden Spur for his "Lone Star Lawmen: The Second Century of the Texas Rangers." (Oxford University Press.) His book won in the Best Western Nonfiction Contemporary category.
A history professor at Victoria College, Stephen L. Hardin was a finalist in the Best Western Nonfiction Historical competition for his "Texian Macabre: The Melancholy Tale of a Hanging in Early Houston." (State House Press.)
A Breckenridge writer, Mike Kearby, was a finalist in the Best Western Juvenile Fiction category for his book, "Ambush at Mustang Canyon." (Trails End Books.)
Finally, Texas native Arturo O. Martinez, who now lives in New Jersey, was a finalist in the same category for his "Pedrito's World." (Texas Tech University Press.)
These recognitions and others will be presented in Scottsdale, AZ on June 14.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"A Few Good Horses"

The moment I read that Pierce Burns’ daddy sold a cow back during the Depression to pay for his honeymoon, I knew he had written a book that would hold my attention. And while selling a cow to fund a wedding trip to San Antonio may sound like something out of a novel, it’s from a non-fiction work that is both a well-done memoir and a family history.

Burns’ self-published story of a Brown County ranching family (and some of their horses) had hardly been shipped from the printer when mainstream book publishing got rocked by yet another round of phony memoir exposures. It’s easy enough to understand why a writer would fake a memoir in the hope of making money, but it’s less easy to grasp why editors aren’t a bit more cautious when they read a manuscript.

Fortunately, “A Few Good Horses” (Gap Creek Press, $24.95; copies may be ordered from the author’s Web site at is clearly the real thing, even though the 174-page hardback is full of characters and incidents that would do a novelist proud.

A good for instance is story of the night the author’s father woke up next to a dead man. In the spring of 1915, George Pierce Burns and a wealthy rancher named John Bryson traveled from Comanche County to Concho County to do some branding and stock-separating on Bryson’s ranch.

Bryson’s son lived on the place, and Burns, Bryson, and two other men bunked for the night at the son’s ranch house. Apparently, the four of them had only two beds. Burns shared with Bryson.

About 10:30 p.m., a loud noise jarred Burns awake.

“John,” he said, “were those shots?”

Bryson didn’t reply. Burns reached over to shake him awake and felt something wet and warm. When the lights came on, they saw the rancher was dead, his face covered in blood. Turns out Bryson had been shot three times, apparently by someone firing through an open window.

Burns and the other men saddled up and followed a set of horse tracks for several miles before a rain shower made it impossible to trail the killer further. Later, the sheriff arrested a man for the murder. Before he could be tried, he committed suicide in jail.

Equally compelling is the story of a family member who married the love of his life only to see her die in childbirth. On her death bed, she asked him to promise that he would never remarry and he made the pledge.

But a couple of years later, he met another pretty lady. One thing led to another and soon their wedding date was at hand. But the groom did not show up at the altar.

Ruminating on his pledge, he decided he just couldn’t break his vow to his first wife. Instead, he saddled his horse, stuffed a whiskey bottle into his saddlebag and rode off.

That, according to family story, started him on the way to his eventual alcoholism. He later changed his mind and married the woman he had stood up, but turned out his first instinct had been correct. The marriage definitely did not proceed to happily thereafter.

Based both on memory, interviews and research “A Few Good Horses” is a good read, a story-filled telling of a Texas family’s history.