Thursday, August 27, 2009

Remembering Elmer Kelton (1926-2009)

I first met Elmer Kelton in the spring of 1967 when my granddad took me to San Angelo to help me find a summer job before I started as a freshman journalism student at Angelo State University that fall.

Granddad took me by the offices of the Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine to see if the editor might need a staff writer. The editor was Elmer, who had been there since 1963 after leaving the San Angelo Standard-Times. As he had when he worked as agriculture editor of the Standard-Times, Elmer spent much of his time on the road in his part of the state. But on this day, he actually happened to be in the office when we dropped by.

Elmer knew my granddad and greeted me graciously when Granddad introduced us. Though understanding a young man’s need to earn some money before and during college, Elmer didn’t have any jobs to offer. Even if he had, he surely realized I was a city boy who didn’t know a rambouillet from a ram, not to mention which end of a cow gets up first.

While he could not help my career at that point, he did later on, as I’ll explain in a bit.

I ended up landing a job as a reporter with the San Angelo Standard-Times, which probably served me better than a job with the Sheep and Goat Raiser’s Association would have.

Other than buying some of his Western paperbacks at the Angelo State University bookstore, I had no other dealings with Elmer until the 1970s. By that time I was a journeyman reporter working in Austin. In addition to covering the news, I periodically reviewed Texana for then book editor Bill Warren and reviewed several of Elmer's novels.

By the early 1980s, I had written a couple of non-fiction books and qualified for membership in the Western Writers of America. At conventions in Santa Fe and Amarillo, I got to listen to Elmer talk about his craft and to visit with him and his wife Anna.

At that Amarillo convention, I taped recorded him at length about his association with Houston Harte, long-time publisher of the San Angelo newspaper and head of the Harte-Hanks newspaper chain.

In 1993, I was elected to membership in the Texas Institute of Letters, which gave me more opportunity to interact with Elmer. Not that talking with him was all that hard to do. As anyone who ever had any contact with him knows, on the affability and humbleness scales, he went off the chart.

He was always happy to sign one of his books for someone, always answered his mail (and later, email) and almost always answered his own phone with a brisk and businesslike, “Kelton.”

As for book signing, as the cliché goes, the rarest of his 60-plus books are the unsigned ones. “I’d drive across town to autograph a book for somebody,” he told me once. Actually, he’d go farther than that.

No telling how many younger writers he helped with favorable blurbs or introductions to their works. In 1997, Elmer wrote the foreword for my book “Texas Ranger Tales” and later wrote a very kind blurb about the first of my two-volume history of the Texas Rangers.

He and I were both among the featured authors at the Texas Book Festival in 1998 and participated in a panel discussion together. Our session was held in one of the hearing rooms in the underground extension of the Capitol.

As we talked, my then four-year-old daughter Hallie squirmed in the audience next to her mom. When our time was up, my wife Linda came up to join me in visiting with Elmer and Anna.

At some point, after just about everyone but us had left the room, Linda realized that Hallie was no where to be seen. Had she decided to leave the committee room and wander off into the 667,000-square foot underground area. Had someone decided she was cute and kidnapped her?

Having raised two boys and a daughter and by then grandparents as well, Elmer and Anna joined us in our search. Just as we were about to call the police, we found little Hallie hiding under a chair in the back of the room.

We all had a relieved laugh about it, and from there on out, just about every time Elmer and I talked with each other, he’d bring that incident up with a smile and ask how Hallie was doing.

The last time I saw Elmer was at the Way Out West Book Festival in Alpine in August 2008. Early on the morning after the last event, he and Anna were up early (in the fashion of most West Texans) for the drive back to San Angelo.

I had some stuff I had intended to donate to the West Texas Collection at Angelo State on my way to Alpine, but had run out of time. Talking in the parking lot of the motel where all the writers had stayed, I asked him if he would mind dropping the material by the library for me—no rush—and he was happy to oblige.

And that, to me, sums up the man. In addition to being a fine writer and gentleman (two traits not always connected), he was always happy to oblige.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Small Books

The invention of pocketbooks, those ubiquitous paperbacks no vacationer would go to the beach without, changed the publishing world in the late 1940s.

Now, several Texas book publishers (and one from across the Red River) are trying a new format: a pocketbook-sized hardback. Until someone comes up with a better generic description, let's just call 'em small books. The books are coming from academic, regional and, fittingly, small presses.

The leader in this recent innovation, at least in number of titles published so far, is Texas Christian University Press. They've brought out seven smalls to date, with another due out this fall. They call the series Texas Small Books. Each runs from 84 to 88 pages and sell for $9.95.

The one that's had the most resonance with me so far is Midland writer Patrick Dearen's "Lone Star Lost: Buried Treasures in Texas."

Dearen has dug up 10 new tales of old treasure and previously unpublished pictures to go with them for an enjoyable read that will make you want to go metal detector shopping long before you're finished reading it. This is a solid gold book from a long-time pro writer.

Other titles from TCU Press include "State Fare: An Irreverant Guide to Texas Movies" by Don Graham; "Extraordinary Texas Women" by recently retired press director Judy Alter; "Texas Country Singers" by Phil Fry and Jim Lee; "Great Texas Chefs" also by Alter; "Texas Football Legends" by Carlton Stowers and "Braggin' on Texas" by Sherrie S. McLeRoy.

Alter says that from a publisher's standpoint, the little books are fun to produce. The idea behind them is to have a title priced low enough to be an impulse purchase that will bring Texas subjects to a broad, popular audience. So far, she says, sales have been good.

From State House Press, operated by McMurray College in Abilene, is "Buffalo Days: Stories from J. Wright Mooar" as told to James Winford Hunt and edited by Robert F. Pace. This 126-page small book (though slightly larger than the TCU titles) sells for $19.95.

That's pretty pricey for this size book, but for those interested in the 1870s Texas buffalo hunting era, there's a lot of good content here. The book is a compilation of stories that originally appeared in the old Holland's magazine in 1933.

The smallest of the small books I've seen so far is Allan G. Kimball's information-packed "The Big Bend Guide," published by Great Texas Line Press in Fort Worth. Measuring only about three by three inches, the 104-page softcover book sells for a downright reasonable $5.95 -- a lot less than a cheeseburger in a lot of places.

While diminutive, Kimball's book contains plenty of useful information for anyone planning a visit to the 800,000-plus-acre Big Bend National Park or any of the beautiful country around it. The literature of the Big Bend is almost as extensive as its rugged desert and mountain terrain, but Kimball's guide is the best small source I've seen.

Perusing it, I was amazed at how much information he was able to pack in. Of course, he's an old newspaper guy like me, so no wonder. On top of that, his grandfather rode with the U.S. Cavalry when it protected the Big Bend from Mexican bandits and probably was involved in naming Panther Peak, below which sits the national park headquarters. He knows the park well.

The book includes 10 top travel tips, 10 top hikes, top intineraries, a check lists for motorists, a list of Web sites and bibliography. There's also a section on Big Bend area place names. (Insider's tip: Marathon, Texas is pronounced MaraTHAN, not MaraTHON.)

To give the University of Oklahoma Press its due, a couple of years ago it released "A Texas Cowboy's Journal: Up the Trail to Kansas in 1868" by Jack Bailey. Bailey is the first person known to have kept a diary on a cattle drive from Texas to the railroad in Kansas, but it stayed in private hands and unpublished until the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum acquired it and got well-known Western historian-writer David Dary to edit and annotate it. The 111-page semi-small book sells for $17.95.

Finally, from Bright Sky Press, is "Historic Texas Book of Days" by Yvonne Bruce and Ann Bruce Henaff. Covering every day of the year in unumbered pages, this book also sells on the high end for its size at $19.95. But it is beautifully illustrated and contains some intriguing Old Farmer's Almanac-style facts particular to the four seasons in Texas. Unfortunately, the book does not predict when the Central and South Texas drought will end.