An associate and I were waiting for a flight to Washington, D.C., flying out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, in the fall of 1996. I spotted another waiting passenger in the lounge and made a bet with my partner, a native New Yorker, that the man was a fellow Texan. My partner took the bet, and now it was time to fish or cut bait. I walked over to the man, offered him my hand, and struck up a conversation. This young fellow was working for an oil company out of Midland/Odessa. My astonished friend, a perplexed look on his face, asked me how I knew he was from Texas. It wasn’t terribly complicated—not at all. First, he was wearing Wrangler jeans and Justin Ropers. The way he shaped the bill of his cap helped, too. Then there was the cut of his thick mustache, as well as more subtle things like the way he carried himself. He could have been from Oklahoma—maybe. But chances were, he was a Texan. I felt like Sherlock Holmes explaining to Watson why my deduction was elementary.
I also remember feeling a little sad, as I knew that there were fewer and fewer of his—of our—kind. Being a Texan has been a benefit to me on more than one occasion, from Vladivostok to Normandy; when I told the locals I was from Texas, it rang a bell, even if it was only through association with a character named J.R. from a now thankfully forgotten nighttime soap opera. In Vladivostok, with a blizzard outside, no heat inside, and Russian TV flashing images of a U.S. presidential campaign (this was years ago—in 1992), there was a vague Slavic conviction that I must know the Tekhaskiy billionaire on the screen. The dezhurnaya, a sort of Russian combination of nagging grandma, security guard, and cleaning lady, made sure I had everything I needed, except for hot water, but I didn’t mind that so much. I was something of a mini-celebrity, with everybody from hotel employees to local gangsters acknowledging my mythical connection to cattle barons, oil magnates, and that Tekhaskiy billionaire.
Texas has always been a place that has generated myths. It’s big and wide, and no real Texan ever let the truth get in the way of a good story. From the very beginning of America’s engagement with Texas, the land itself sparked the imagination. Texas fever swept through America in the 1820’s and 30’s, as empresarios like Stephen F. Austin opened Texas to American settlement. As the Americans headed for the border, they scrawled “GTT” on the doors of their abandoned cabins: “Gone to Texas.” Gone to settle a new land and make a new life. Settler Micajah Autry, for example, would write to his wife, Martha, “I am determined to provide for you a home, or perish.” As Walter Lord wrote of early Texas, the land that met the settlers was
eye-opening, a breathtaking sight . . . the sheer abundance of everything staggered the imagination. No drought or falling water table had as yet taken its toll. The prairie was an endless sea of waving grass and wildflowers . . . The fresh green river bottoms were thick with bee trees, all dripping honey. Deep, limpid pools lay covered with lilies. The streams were full of fish, and game was everywhere . . . there for the taking. It was enough to give birth to a Texas penchant for superlatives that was destined to endure. Travelers described sugarcane that grew 25 feet high in a single-season . . . pumpkins as large as a man . . . a sweet potato so big a whole family dined on it, and there was enough left to feed the pigs.
The Texas legend and the Texas identity, as so often happens, were forged in the age-old pattern of migration and war. Micajah Autry did make that home in Texas, but perished securing it at the Alamo. Texas was the Lone Star of the West, an independent republic with a foundational myth formed by heroes, storytellers, and rogues, forged by courage, determination, folly, and tragedy. Texas was defined by the tall tale, and the tall men who made them. William Alexander Anderson “Bigfoot” Wallace, for instance, was a folk hero who never told the same story twice. J. Frank Dobie once wrote that Bigfoot was as honest as daylight, but nevertheless liked to “stretch the blanket” when he recounted his adventures. Wallace, it was claimed, was descended from the Scottish hero William Wallace. How he got the nickname Bigfoot remains a mystery. In one of Wallace’s versions of the story, he’d once tracked an Indian chief of Goliath-like proportions, but since Wallace himself was a big man and wore moccasins like the elusive Indian, his fellow trackers mistook Wallace’s footprints for those of the giant Waco chief. Wallace didn’t mind the nickname, saying “Bigfoot Wallace” was preferable to “Lying Wallace” or “Thieving Wallace.”
Whatever the truth of it, Bigfoot came to Texas for reasons that William Wallace would have readily understood. Like a good clansman, he was determined to avenge the death of his brother and cousin. Both were among the prisoners murdered by the Mexican army at Goliad. So Bigfoot set out to “take the pay out of the culprits,” as he told his biographer, John C. Duvall. Later, he told Duvall that he figured the account had been squared. Indeed, Wallace became a legendary Texas Ranger captain, as well as a scout, riding with other great captains like Jack Hayes and Sam Walker. Bigfoot was among those who stormed and captured the Bishop’s Palace at Monterey in 1848, and he spent a lifetime tracking and fighting border raiders and Indians.
But the most famous story of all associated with Bigfoot is that of the Mier expedition and the white bean. Following an 1842 raid by Mexican General Wall, Bigfoot took part in a punitive expedition against Mexico. He was among a group that was captured near the town of Mier, south of the Rio Grande. After an escape attempt, Santa Anna ordered that some of the Texans be executed. One-hundred-seventy-six Texans had survived the battle and the grueling march some hundreds of miles long, which eventually brought them to their prison at Hacienda Salado. It was decided that the Texans would be punished by lottery. One-hundred-fifty-nine white beans and seventeen black beans were poured into a pot. Anyone drawing a black bean would face the firing squad. As legend has it, Bigfoot shoved his hand into the pot and grasped two beans—one large and one small. Believing that the white beans were smaller, he dropped the larger one and kept the small one. He was right: It was a white bean. When the drawing was done, Bigfoot saw that four of his fellow Rangers had drawn black beans, along with thirteen others. “Boys,” says Bigfoot, “I never did cotton to white beans. I’ll trade you a white one for a black one.” None of the condemned men took up Bigfoot on his offer, and part of what Will Henry later called “the living heart” of the Texas Ranger tradition was born. Like Bigfoot, a Ranger must always be prepared to offer his life for a comrade, and a Texas Ranger must never follow the example of the leader of the doomed 1842 expedition. Rangers never surrender.
Big Sam Houston was one of the fathers of the Lone Star Republic, leaving behind a life among the Cherokee, a political career, and a reputation as a warrior, boozer, and brawler. His first marriage ended in scandal, with Sam’s young wife leaving her husband after only 11 weeks. Sam never revealed the source of the conflict, but departed Tennessee and the governor’s post, as well as a fair prospect of becoming a presidential candidate, to live among the Cherokee, then to begin a new life and career in Texas. Like Bigfoot, Sam may have liked to stretch the blanket, and his life and career generated a mass of myths and stories. Known variously as “the Raven” or “Big Drunk” among the Cherokee, the story of his failed marriage generated its own tales wild enough to suit the persona of Big Sam Houston. Following the rather hurried departure of his young bride, the wagging tongues of Tennessee speculated that Sam’s questionable hygiene, and possibly the nature of his conjugal expectations—both perhaps relics of his time with the Cherokee—might have startled young Eliza. Others said that Sam’s fondness for John Barleycorn may have tested Eliza’s tolerance. One later tale had Sam as president of Texas throwing his household into an uproar when he awoke late one night with an unusual request. The president wanted a cup of water.
At any rate, someone once quipped that Sam was irresistible to two kinds of people: artists and women. Indeed, he loved posing for portraits, and as for the ladies, one wag claimed that a party thrown by Houston was reminiscent of the Muslim paradise. During his second stay among the Cherokee, Sam spent two years largely out of the limelight. He was, however, appointed the Cherokee nation’s envoy to Washington. On a trip to the Capitol in 1832, Houston beat the daylights out of a congressman, William Stanbury, with his cane, for accusations of corruption that Stanbury had made against him. Houston was tried for contempt of Congress. The dramatic trial (Francis Scott Key was his defense attorney) dominated the Washington scene and thrust Sam Houston back onto the national stage. Houston was released with a not especially harsh reprimand and found himself invigorated by the incident, later telling friends that the Stanbury affair had given him the will to live. It certainly refreshed his confidence and sense of destiny. Later that year, he set out for Texas, and the rest, as they say, is history. Sam Houston won independence for Texas and a place in the Texas Pantheon. At San Jacinto, Houston was wounded and had his horse, Saracen, shot out from under him, displaying the kind of heroics in battle that he had shown under his mentor Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814.
Twice president of the Republic of Texas, congressman, governor, senator, and revered hero, Houston was surely one of the most remarkable men in a remarkable American age. He also had the distinction of being the only man in U.S. history (that I know of, anyway) to be run out of the governorship in two states—once in Tennessee, and a second time in Texas, when Houston’s Unionist views got him in trouble. (Houston, however, refused Lincoln’s offer of troops to use against his own people.)
Before the battle of San Jacinto, one of the pivotal clashes in American history, Houston told his troops “to be men, be free men, that your children may bless their father’s name.” On his deathbed, “Texas” was among the last words heard as Sam Houston passed into eternity.
Texas stood tall among the nations in World War II. Audie Leon Murphy, a son of poor Texas sharecroppers, was the most decorated soldier of the war, receiving every decoration for valor his country had to offer—some of them twice. His name was once widely known in America and revered in his native state. My father often told me Audie Murphy stories. He certainly was among my boyhood heroes. Murphy was a little man with a boyish baby face, a talented man, an author, a songwriter, and an actor to boot. Film director John Huston once commented that Murphy was a “quiet little killer,” but he was a humble, if not especially gentle, man. In his book, To Hell and Back, Murphy did not focus on himself or his own exploits. He told the story of the GIs he served with. “If there be any glory in war,” he wrote, “let it rest on men like these.”
Audie Murphy was born in either 1924 or 1925 in Kingston, Texas. He was one of a dozen children. When Audie was 12 years old, his father abandoned the family. When he was 16, his mother died. His early years were desperately poor, the country in the grip of the Great Depression. Audie faced responsibilities far beyond his years, picking cotton and hunting small game to help support the family. When the war came, Audie rushed to enlist. He was turned down by the Marines. The paratroops wanted nothing to do with him, because he was too small. Audie was consigned to the infantry, where we went on to prove himself as one the finest soldiers of this or perhaps any age. On January 26, 1945, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor in an action near Holtzdear, France, where he was credited with killing or wounding 50 enemy troops, stopping an attack by German tanks. In the years after the war, Audie exhibited what today would be called “post-traumatic stress disorder.” He suffered from insomnia, had frequent nightmares, and was never really able to adjust to postwar life. He gambled, lost most of the money he’d made in Hollywood, and spent much of his career grinding out B-Westerns. But Audie Murphy’s greatest misfortune, perhaps, was being born in the wrong time. After Vietnam, war heroes were no longer in vogue, and an increasingly urbanized America found it harder to honor Murphy for what he was: a magnificent warrior, an uncommon common man, grown from the soil of rural Texas.
Murphy was very much a part of an old Texas remnant, one marked by both informal courtesy and harsh violence. His biographer, Don Graham, once pondered what might have become of Murphy, had he lived on into the Reagan years. Perhaps his country might have seen him differently, rejuvenating an aging war hero, but Murphy had already lived too long by his death in an airplane crash in 1971. The America that had produced him was gone. As Graham writes in No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy, “Americans nowadays prefer video fantasy,” an “MTV version of reality.”
Audie Murphy was the real thing, more human and more tragic than the made-up or the phony. Have we reached the end of the line? Murphy was the last really authentic Texas hero. Not some movie star who moved to Austin, or a mercenary professional athlete. Little Audie, like Bigfoot and Big Sam, and the old Texas that produced them, was infinitely more interesting, more worth loving, more worth hating, than the pumped-up, celluloid America that our elites, and indeed, millions of Americans, seem to want.
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