Friday Brain Fire: Lies and Leaning into the Sun

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The first time I rolled into Eagle Pass, a little town down on the Rio Grande, I wondered if I were still in America. Below the street and on the riverbank there were a few hundred people living in shacks fashioned of cardboard and sticks. These were impoverished Kickapoo Indians existing in a kind of international limbo. Residential streets were lined with modest clapboard homes that featured broken down vehicles sitting in their front yards, which were bare earth that had been scoured and dried by hot winds.

The weather, however, was cold on this day. A Canadian storm had pushed far south and temperatures did not rise above freezing, which was a rarity in Maverick County. People were not hiding indoors, however. Dozens of homes had large fires in the front yard and families were standing close trying to stay warm. Eagle Pass and its citizens had been forced to increase the use of natural gas heating in their homes because of the freezing weather, and, when their bills increased, they were unable to pay. The gas company had cut off the fuel in a pay or freeze strategy. They froze.

I had been living on the border for several years in the late 70s and knew it quite well from Brownsville to El Paso and, without doubt, there were “Third World” characteristics. These had almost nothing to do with the enterprise or character of the people who lived on la frontera and were generally related to how the region had been treated by the state. The consequences of being politically meaningless on the border were the lowest rates of education in the country, worst mortality for children at birth, highest incidence of intestinal parasites in America, lowest per capita income, largest number of outdoor privies, and the worst life expectancy.

Policy caused the border’s grim existence. Landowners were able to establish “colonias” and sell lots without water or utilities and the poor were kept in squalid isolation. Open sewers ran through neighborhoods and caused disease. Low tax valuations made their school districts inadequate and the quality of education was often abysmal. Farm workers chopped weeds in fields and got chronically ill because crop dusters were dropping chemicals from airplanes as they labored. Tens of thousands of people lived in chronic, grinding, and abject poverty.

Although the border still has problems, no longer can it be qualified as being similar to a third world country. The emerging political influence of the Hispanic demographic has created new policy strength in Austin. The Lower Rio Grande Valley will get a medical school as the middle class surges in towns like McAllen, Harlingen, and Brownsville. Valley Cities have begun to take on the appearances of American urban centers with the arrival of investment capital and franchise businesses. The stretch of US 83 between Mission and Rio Grande City, which used to be about 30 miles of open brush country, has filled with neighborhoods and storefronts.

Although there are still problems along the border, the notion that it is a third world, as suggested by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, is insulting and ignorant of the larger political and economic forces that forged the region. Those were caused largely by politicians and wealthy lobbyists, disconnected from the border and unconcerned, who operated in an unaware “Fourth World.” This Fourth World responds to power and money, and not problems. The people who populate it are oblivious to real issues and manufacture fear and crisis to acquire political support, when the slightest amount of understanding could begin a long transitional movement away from social and economic crises that drive American political discourse.

The Fourth World is a hard shell bubble where there is never any hunger and always enough money to make the mortgage payment, take a vacation, send your kids to college, a secure retirement, and buy a new car. No one who resides there pays attention to what is transpiring on the outside of their perfect little planet. Abbott, because he resides in the Fourth World, considers himself a leader because he looks to the border and fears immigration is a threat to his way of life. Abbott wants to throw 300 million dollars of state money at securing the border, which is a federal government problem, while schools suffer budget cuts and Texans lose health care and unemployment benefits.

Most of us live in what can be considered the Third World in Texas and the rest of the U.S. Life is paycheck to paycheck, sometime unemployment check to unemployment check, wondering not about retirement in comfort or having enough to pay for a child’s college education, but simply how do we make it another week. And I am baffled at how and why we take seriously people like Greg Abbott. But this is the state that elected George W. Bush, a man who had never a day in his life worried about paying a bill or working 40 to 60 hour weeks. He had a trust fund of a million dollars, which his mother had demanded all of her children be provided, before she would agree to let George H. W. Bush run for congress in Houston. All of the Bush kids got a jumpstart in life, or, as was often said of W, “He woke up on third base and thought he hit a triple.”

Abbott’s pejorative use of the third world description of the border region was a product of his plan to increasingly militarize the border. He’s talking about another $300 million dollars to have 500 more state troopers patrolling the region along the Rio Grande. It’s an ignorant waste of money in a state that has far more critical problems. Spend the damned money on teachers’ raises. Besides, there are enough bad actors on the border, and not all of them are working for the drug cartels.

According to reporting by the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the federal government’s Border Patrol agents have shot 21 people trying to cross into the U.S. over the past three or four years, most of them Mexican or Guatemalan nationals. They were not all standing on the north side of the border, either. A 16 year-old, who was on the Mexican side of the fence, was shot multiple times in the back and killed. He was not the only victim on the south side of the river. Protecting the border is a difficult and dangerous job but does that sound like we need more cops and guns cutting for sign up and down the river?

(Click here to read about Border Patrol and immigrants)

Third World Flora
Third World Flora

But that’s far too many words wasted on politics for a Friday. Spring is rolling across Texas and in the magnificence that is the Trans-Pecos, the giant form of the genus lupinus is blooming on the mesas and desert floor of the Big Bend. Texans call them bluebonnets but most have not ever seen the larger species that can get up to three feet high. And it is a glorious thing to behold. It is also thriving in the “Third World” border region.

For those not initiated to the desert, the life that springs from unlikely sources can overwhelm with beauty. My favorite desert bloom this time of year is the ocotillo, a prickly cactus that unassumingly looks like a stick growing up out of the rock but lets forth with bright red buds to the northern moving sun. At the risk of becoming “flower boy,” I offer a shot of ocotillo in bloom at Big Bend National Park from a few years past.

Ocotillo Leaning into the Sun
Ocotillo Leaning into the Sun

There is always a sound track for me to the American west. Back in the 90s, I was on a city slicker cattle drive that went from Marfa to Cibolo Creek Ranch, a baronial fort built by Milton Faver in the middle of the 19th century. Faver is a mysterious character that just appeared one day in the Mexican village of Meoqui, got a job in a flour mill, and bought a handcart to push produce and dry goods up toward the Rio Grande. Eventually, he had freight wagons, opened a store, and began acquiring cattle.

My research indicates he may have been the first cowboy to conceive of the cattle drive. Faver’s cattle grazed open range in the Chinati Mountains in the region known as La Junta de los Rios, the junction of the two rivers, the Los Conchos and the Rio Grande, near what is present day Presidio. The spot is said by archaeologists to be the oldest continually cultivated location in North America. Although it has been given a short shrift by historians, Faver and men like Ben Leaton and John Spencer built empires in the region; except there were no real markets for cattle. He began driving herds north on the old Chihuahua Trail to Santa Fe and up to Fort Davis after military had established its presence in West Texas. (Faver is often considered as the role model for the trail boss on the old TV series “Rawhide,” which starred a young Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Gaines. The show’s theme song included the lyrics, “Through hail wind and weather, we’ll follow Mr. Faber….)

The great baronial fort Faver built has become a beautiful high-end resort, restored by Houston investor John Poindexter. The monied and famous often escape to Cibolo Creek to hide from the world. And on the cattle drive my TV crew and I were taping, people had come in from the East Coast after the Billy Crystal movie to drive a herd of Longhorn from Marfa about 90 miles down to Cibolo Creek over two days. The scene was kind of funny and beautiful at the same time and I remember one of the other TV anchors who came along woke up in the morning and put on white riding gloves, boots, cowboy shirt with snap collar, and got on a horse to begin the process of looking good while his camera man schlepped gear in the back of a pickup.

Somewhere along the way that weekend I heard the voice of Don Edwards of Amarillo. He seems to have a full octave range and sings cowboy songs, mostly about Texas. Edwards had a blip of fame when he played the ranch foreman “Smokey” on Robert Redford’s movie “The Horse Whisperer” but his music is as beautiful as it is obscure. If you like the history of the west and cattle drives and the mythology of the cowboy culture, you need to know the songs of Don Edwards. His voice and words can take you back to another time; they are a lament for loss that are so acutely performed you will acquire a sense that Edwards once rode the trail. Listen to “The Campfire has Gone Out.”

But one of my favorites is a story of a cowboy who had gone back east as he aged and dreamed of Texas and “the roundup in the spring.”

There’s another kind of history that is less romantic but still resonant and painful across the decades. My friends Patrick and Cheryl Fries have spent much of their professional lives telling the stories of U.S. military veterans. More than decade ago they chartered a refurbished Huey and flew to 40 cities as “landing zones” and invited Vietnam vets to come tell their stories next to the chopper. The resulting documentary, “In the Shadow of the Blade,” is one of the most important pieces of historical material ever created on the Vietnam War.

One of their latest projects is “When I Have Your Wounded,” which is a documentary about the legacy of the “dustoff” pilots, fearless souls who flew unarmed helicopters into firefights in the jungle to pick up the injured and fly them to medical care. The film’s title comes from legendary Huey pilot Mike Novosel, who had been radioed in to a hot LZ to pick up several mortally wounded men. As Novosel approached, and flared the tail of his helicopter to hover in the midst of the field of fire, the commanding officer on the ground was screaming at him on the radio to get the hell out of there because the fighting was too intense. Novosel’s calm voice responded with the simple phrase, “When I have your wounded, sir.”

The Fries’ new documentary includes work by Patrick in Afghanistan. He discovered that the children of dustoff pilots became dustoff pilots, serving their country in possibly the most dangerous job it offers. They fly wounded troops out of combat through mountain passes in Afghanistan, dodging rockets and small arms to get people to safety. Patrick is one of the most talented videographers working in America today and their film airs on KLRU in Austin Monday at 7 p.m.

And finally, for those of you in Texas and elsewhere still eating Gulf shrimp or other seafood, a modest suggestion: don’t. It’s an unnecessary risk. A new research report from NOAA’s National Center for Coastal Ocean Science offers strong data that sea life is still dying from the effects of the BP oil well blowout from April to July of 2010. Eighteen scientists studied the oil’s impact on bottlenose dolphins swimming into the closed Barataria Bay just west of the Mississippi River channel near New Orleans. The fish apparently didn’t get the government’s order not to swim in their environment.

A year after the spill, more than half of the bottlenose dolphins in the region were considered to be in “guarded or worse” condition, covered with lesions, infections, tissue damage, and 17 percent were not expected to survive. The lead author of the project is Dr. Lori H. Schwacke, Ph.D., who said, publicly, “I’ve never seen such a high prevalence of very sick animals, and with unusual conditions such as adrenal hormone abnormalities.”

Schwacke was not allowed to do interviews with reporters in the wake of her news conference on the findings. The excuse given was that the research was part of the BP litigation and was likely to be entered as evidence. Pitiful nonsense, of course. And, big surprise, BP is disputing the findings. Because the almost five million gallons of oil the spilled into the gulf, which could be seen from space, could have never harmed marine life like eighteen Ph.D.’s claim.

The Spill Seen from Space
The Spill Seen from Space

I was going to rant about fracking and earthquakes and the Fukushima ongoing nuclear disaster, but I’m too damned depressed already so I will return to listening to Don Edward’s cowboy music and thinking about bluebonnets.