Texas To The World Dispatch #12

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“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days, no one could stand him.”
– Joseph Heller
[Editors’ Note: The challenge of writing about Texas, even on a weekly basis, is not the paucity of material but its wealth. It’s hard to pick topics but it must be done or I’d be writing all week long. I’d do that but somebody is going to have to write checks to sustain me. If you think we are making bad choices of material, let us know with polite suggestions.]
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Let’s get this out of the way fast: Too many people are dumbasses, which is how we ended up with one in the White House. They are uninformed, don’t give a damn, or repeat some silly mantra they heard from a political hack. My dad, who was never mistaken for a cosmologist, used to say he knew a lot of people in Mississippi who were “too dumb to pour piss out of a boot with directions written on the heel.” He was right. I’ve been to Mississippi. A lot. Those types proliferate. But ignorance is a national problem, and it is acute in Texas, the place that I love.
The most recent manifestation of stupidity under the Lone Star comes not, I am pleased to report, from the capitol in Austin. Instead, cast your eyes westward to the town of Alpine. The city’s Amtrak station, clean and recently refurbished, is likely to be shut down under Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate all long-distance passenger trains in the new federal budget. The train system gets federal subsidies to function but still covers more than 94 percent of its operating costs with revenues. The fifteen overland routes operated by Amtrak are the only service in 23 states, and, in many cases, an economic connection for rural America to the rest of the country. But the country folk who voted for Trump in big numbers are about to get what they asked for without knowing it, which is to say they are about to be screwed by the guy they believed in – because he will eliminate their train service in his budget.
The idiocy in this, though, is the patent lack of understanding or even minimal awareness of the federal government’s subsidies of other common carriers. The comments on Big Bend Now’s Facebook page are stultifying in their stupidity. The complainants wonder why Amtrak can’t make a profit and has to get their tax dollars while they work their butts off in their businesses and all the government does is take, take, take. Nobody is bitching about MOAB, “Mother of All Bombs,” which was dropped on Afghanistan and cost $314 million to develop and has a unit cost, according to a military info site, of $16 million per pop. But hey, Amtrak underwrites cross-country travelers at $405.67 per journey; we can’t have such horror.
People who whine about Amtrak’s minor losses never mutter a sound about the federal government building highways with their tax dollars, which generate no revenue. Nor do they complain about government construction of airports and the facilities and staffing of air traffic control, all of which enrich the airlines with their tax money. Harbors on our coastlines are mostly government operated and taxpayer funded and deliver to Alpine conservatives their “Make America Great Again” hats from China. Amtrak runs on freight rails, which are costly to lease and restrict speeds, and the train system rarely gets investment capital from the government to upgrade service. Operating at a six percent loss seems almost miraculous.
The stubborn reality is that our roads weren’t crowded with cars until we created a network of highways and our trains won’t enjoy profitability until they run fast and connect to many more locations. In Texas, we could raise our gas tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1992, and put that money into rail transportation. Or we could add our voices to the chorus of whining about Amtrak’s tiny subsidy from a government that pisses away billions on fighter jets that won’t fly right and bombs that never seem to stop our enemies or end our wars.
Baylor’s Bums
The university in Waco continues to make all the wrong moves in the wake of a campus sexual assault scandal. The bad news bearers are refusing to give release to high school students who committed to play for former coach Art Briles prior to the story breaking about his players being accused of rape. The university’s leadership seems intent on working the seams between pretending their previous coach never walked on campus while trying to hang onto the young men who were drawn to his accomplishments. The position is indefensible, and unconscionable. Athletes who signed letters of commitment face months of NCAA appeals processes unless Baylor gives them a release, and the time is likely to eat up their freshman year and distract from any preparation they might be making to become competitive.
Not hard to do the honorable thing here and let ‘em loose. But Baylor struggles with finding the next right thing these days.
University (mis)management, meanwhile, is running an ad campaign to direct the public’s attention away from its recent failures, (which, we understand, Art Briles still hasn’t heard about). The ad makes a promise Baylor will “take courageous, comprehensive actions to cultivate a caring campus,” (and alliterate until all English and writing teachers leave in disgust). The ad, which was produced by someone with zero sense of irony, is labeled, “The Facts.” But here are “facts” not mentioned in the ad: There are 52 co-eds who have filed suit claiming they were raped by football players during a four-year period while Briles was coaching. While the university promotes itself as a place of “help and healing” in its new ad campaigns, nothing has been done to resolve the trauma of the women who were apparently victimized on campus, and then ignored.
Baylor has hired a new president, a woman, which might be a calculation to mitigate harm to the brand. As qualified as Linda Livingstone is to lead the university out of its darkness, her appointment will likely feel to critics that it is part of a public relations effort to diminish the noise around the ongoing investigations, which is unfair to her.
But there is an abundance of unfairness presently dogging Baylor.
Oh, Mexico
We lived on the border for several years when we were young and starting out and we loved the exotic feel of the Rio Grande Valley and the streets of Laredo. Weekends we drove into the Sierra Madres to little towns like Bustamente and ate pickled eggs and drank Negro Modelo at cafes along the cobblestoned streets. There were times when the air was clear and we sat on the back stoop of our single-wide rental and could see the mountains in the distance on our slope just up from the Rio Grande. Mexico made dreams happen in our hearts and Fridays we hurried across the international bridge to sip rum punches at the Cadillac Bar and listen to mariachis in the plaza as the warm Gulf air brushed the night. Mexico was always an easy place to love. The people are warm and generous, the food is indulgent and comforting, and the geography is as spectacular as the long history.
Our national struggles with problems, though, have now become mutual. Narco trafficantes have corrupted the government and law enforcement in Mexico because American consumption of contrabando creates a business that is so lucrative the associated risks seem minor to smugglers. There is also a new American president who has decided Mexico is the source of many issues north of the Rio Grande. Talk of tariffs and walls and mass deportation schemes do nothing to improve relations along the border or build economic and political cooperation.
Americans are increasingly warned off Mexico by our State Department, which consistently sites the risks of travel to certain parts of the country. There are consistent stories, no longer just anecdotal, of kidnappings and murders by U.S. citizens who end up in the wrong places. Exact numbers are hard to find but the American government says that in 2013 a total of 81 of its citizens were killed in Mexico and the number increased to 100 the subsequent year. Kidnappings appear to be increasingly prevalent and had reached a total of 241 by the end of 2015.
Americans tend to not confront the moral question of their use of illicit drugs and a connection to the horrors of Mexico. We launch an absurd war on drugs that stops modest local distribution networks but we never put a dent in the flow across the border, which is estimated to account for about 90 percent of illegal narcotics used in the U.S. The inevitable outcome of our gigantic consumer market is a fight for control of it by Mexican cartels, and we end up with stories of mutilated bodies found on the street in the resort town of Cabo San Lucas, or murder victims being tossed out of airplanes onto rooftops.
Ciudad Juarez, El Paso’s sister city, which was once at the center of the cartel wars, has again re-emerged as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. A Mexican think tank that tracks homicides and drug violence says there were 607 murders in Juarez in 2016, which, sadly, is lower than when the cartels were fighting for control of that corridor of delivery. Thousands of women were “disappeared” in Juarez, their bodies often found in the desert outside of town. Producing a special report on that crisis during the 90s, I interviewed more than a dozen families who had no idea what had happened to their daughters who had simply left for work at a maquiladora plant and never returned home. When the cartel war ended, Juarez became, unquestionably, safer, and the mayor invited investors and journalists to come take a tour and see the new paint job of optimism. The latest report will not help him grow an economy.
For anyone who wants an understanding of what drugs and violence have done to la frontera, there can be no more important reading than the work of one of America’s least known and most un-celebrated authors, the late Charles Bowden. He wrote with great detail and sympathy about the drama in Juarez and El Paso, and the consequences we are still measuring.
The war on drugs is over. Drugs won.
“The universal food of the people of Texas, both rich and poor, seems to be corn-dodger and fried bacon.”
Frederick Law Olmstead, ‘A Journey Through Texas’ (1856)
But Presidio
There is a location where two communities cooperate on both sides of the river and offer up an example of possibilities for life on the border. The people of Presidio and Ojinaga almost view their cities as a single municipality united by the river. They shop and dine and visit their families without fear or great constraint, and they are building bridges instead of walls. The two-lane international bridge will, eventually, become one-way northbound and a southbound crossing is scheduled for construction along with a new railroad bridge.
Known to historians and archaeologists as La Junta de los Rios, the area around Presidio and Ojinaga is possibly the oldest, continually occupied location in North America. The Rio Grande and Rio Conchos meet there in a confluence that has provided fertile ground for tilling in an alluvial plain and a constant supply of water amid the arid Southwest. Even during the brutal times of settlement and cultural collisions, there was cooperation in La Junta. The Spanish in 1581 discovered indigenous peoples they referred to as Patarabueyes, who were growing crops and living in flat-roofed houses, and they all interacted with the Jumano Indians, hunter-gatherers that moved through the valley with the seasons. Some of the first Spanish missions in Texas were established at La Junta about a century later.
Traditional cooperation and understanding is also the organizing principle behind a new historic and archaeological effort to learn more of the La Junta’s history. The Center for Big Bend Studies (CBBS) at Sul Ross State University in Alpine and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) of Mexico are signing a joint agreement to begin a series of excavations and preservations on both sides of the river to acquire more knowledge of how life advanced before there were hard borders, soft people, and complex laws. The team of archaeologists begins their endeavors on April 24th in Presidio, a few days after the city’s annual fine arts festival, a celebration of creativity and living together at a time when everyone in Washington thinks the two nations and their people are divisible.
Go to Presidio.
Meanwhile, Back at Stately Wayne Manor
In the house “built for giants but inhabited by midgets,” elected representatives are still doing their best to pass a bathroom law designed to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and create one that also doesn’t yet exist. Economist Ray Perryman says if the legislature takes control of where we all pee that legal change will cost the city of San Antonio, heavily dependent on the tourism industry for jobs and tax revenue, about $411 million dollars in lost cash flow, and an estimated 4,650 jobs. Civic leaders in the Alamo City claim they’ve already been dropped by two conventions that had picked them but are taking their $40 million to another city not in Texas.
San Antonio has previously been named the 2018 host for the Final Four NCAA basketball tournament, and $50 million dollars in renovations are beginning at the Alamo Dome. None of that will mean anything, though, if the political peckerwoods in Austin pass their law governing the evacuation of bowels and bladders. The NCAA pulled a big event from North Carolina, and they are just as likely to do the same thing to Texas, which we will deserve because even the revised measure is terrifying young trans-gender people coming of age and dealing with their sexual identities and a surrounding world that doesn’t seem to give a jolly, good goddamn.
But at least Lt. Gov. Damn Patrick won’t have to worry about peeing next to a girl.
Fossil Fools
All the talk of saving coal mining jobs is nonsense. They aren’t coming back, and even if they did, the total number of workers wouldn’t fill half of Jerry Jones’ stadium in Dallas. The economic impact of saving coal jobs will be miniscule, but that won’t stop the Dancing with the Stars guy Rick Perry from promoting a billion-dollar carbon capture plant in Texas, which is the first in the nation. The NRG facility captures carbon dioxide from burning coal before it mixes into the atmosphere. The CO2 is then liquefied and transported via pipeline to a company that is injecting it into marginal wells to capture oil, freaky fracking.
The technology works, but it is expensive, and it’s only needed when coal is burned in power plants. Unfortunately for NRG and other investors in carbon capture, most power generating plants have converted to natural gas and its low price makes carbon capture a nonsensical endeavor. With oil at just over $50 dollar per barrel, sending liquefied CO2 out to wells via pipelines to inject into aging fields makes zero business sense.
Which is probably why Energy Secretary Rick Perry was sent to Texas to promote it.
More Pipe Dreams
A company entrusted with moving oil and gas across the landscape with pipelines, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) of Dallas, doesn’t have much of a record for safety. They are clearly better at winning political fights than they are at making certain their pipelines don’t leak. According to a report by the non-profit Louisiana Bucket Brigade, ETP averages 2.8 spills per month on pipelines it owns and operates and it has polluted three drinking water supplies in 2015-16. The CEO of ETP is Kelcy Warren, (a frequent guest on our show here), who formerly had Rick Perry on his board of directors. Perry had also named Warren to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Board because, well, you know, yer oil men always make good stewards of nature.
ETP runs the Dakota Access Pipeline through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, the Trans Pecos Pipeline through Big Bend, the Comanche Trail line from Midland to El Paso, and is planning another 160-mile long snake into the Cajun Country of Louisiana. And as evidence they are qualified to have those facilities, ETP only reports “42 known oil spills, 11 natural gas spills, nine gasoline spills, three propane spills, two ‘other’ spills, and two ‘unknown’ spills. Of these incidents, there were eight injuries reported, five evacuations, and $300,000 in damages.”
So, quit your whinin’.
Oh, and just to keep the humor flowing, ETP wrote to the White House recently, which is where one of its major investors resides, and said that whole “buy American” thing ain’t gonna work for ‘em. They don’t care what Trump says, they predict “significant adverse effects” should they be forced to use American steel. They even called it “possibly illegal”
“Attaching such conditions,” wrote the Associated General Contractors, “is a very dangerous slippery slope that opens the door to all sorts of federal requirements that have never been conditions on privately funded construction work.”
Nobody should worry, though. Trump didn’t mean it. His executive action said the pipeline companies were to use U.S. materials and equipment to the “maximum extent possible” and to the “extent permitted by law.” Weasel words, which were profoundly evident when the Trump administration acknowledged publicly that the Keystone XL pipeline was not required to use American steel.
So, we all good here now? You understand? Not America first. Money first.
Their ghosts must surely moan audibly when a freshening wind crosses the western shores of Matagorda Bay on the Texas Gulf Coast. Thousands of lives went unlived at a place called Indianola. There is little present now to suggest the sandy remains are traces of what was once an energetic city on the edge of a shining future. An old cistern sits not far from the green waters of the bay and a few concrete pilings stand as relics of busy commerce by the waterfront.
In the decade after the end of the Civil War, Indianola grew as a natural port of entry into the American Southwest. The Morgan Lines steamship service docked at the end of a long wharf with travelers who had booked through passage from New York City and train tracks ran out on the docks to pick up the weary seafarers and take them to their hotels. One historian said Indianola was the first location West of the Mississippi River to have ice and there were theaters, photography studios, grand hotels, billiard halls, schools and churches as the population rose to more than six thousand by 1875.
And then the first hurricane struck. Nobody knows how many died, but likely thousands. Probably most of the people living in Indianola were European immigrants and had no idea about tropical storms. They came to the city for opportunity; it was the easternmost point of the old Chihuahua Trail that went to San Antonio and Chihuahua City before the Pacific Coast. German and Czech settlers had landed there and moved inland up the Guadalupe River to places like Fredericksburg and Praha to raise cattle and grow crops in the hard, unforgiving ground.
Survivors rebuilt Indianola after the 1875 storm but eleven years later another hurricane knocked the city down with fire and rain and floods, and, eventually, the place where singers had performed on stages and baseball had been played before large crowds was turned into an abandoned strip of beach. Not much exists today beyond the historical marker, a diorama of the town site in the Calhoun County Museum, and the sad ballad by singer-songwriter Brian Burns.
Texas Facts
· It is still a hanging offense in Texas to steal cattle or to put graffiti on someone else’s cow
· It is also illegal to indecently expose or swear in front of a corpse in Texas
· In Galveston, Texas, it is illegal to have a camel run loose on the beach
Texana: Part II
Gov. Ann Richards (1991-1995): “I am delighted to be here with you this evening because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like.” [1988 keynote address, Democratic National Convention]
See what the likes of Brokaw and Rather say about this great lady. All About Ann.
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“The definition of insanity in Texas is so insane it is impossible to be insane in Texas.”
Malcolm McDowell