Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Little Town

I've often thought about South Texas that, whatever one might say about it, I come from a place that is like nowhere else.

By the turn of the 20th Century, it had become populated enough that prominent citizens wanted to extend a railroad line to Brownsville, on the Mexican border. The massive King Ranch donated land; in 1904, the town of Kingsville began to take shape. (The community wasn't actually incorporated until 1911.) What is now the Union Pacific Railroad began operating a passenger line, and shortly thereafter opened an office in Kingsville.

Businesses opened to serve the railroad and its employees, and the town grew. In the 1920s, a new cotton mill and the discovery of oil in the area attracted more people. The South Texas Teacher's College (later Texas A & I University and now Texas A & M University-Kingsville) opened in 1925; World War II saw the establishment of the Kingsville Naval Air Station. Humble Oil (now Exxon) opened an office in 60s, but closed it in the 80s during a worldwide slump in oil prices. The population of Kingsville peaked at close to 30,000 in 1985; today, a little over 25,000 people reside there. (Source: The Handbook of Texas Online.)

Among those 25,000 people is my 82-year old father. In 1967, he accepted an offer to become the head librarian at Texas A & I, and moved his family to Kingsville from Columbus, OH. Until then, neither he nor my mother had ever lived west of Indiana or south of Washington, D.C. I was 12. My brothers were 11, 9, 7, and 5. We arrived in an August heat as stifling and brutal as a Pennsylvania steel foundry. As extreme as the heat could be, the humidity was unlike anything we thought could occur on the planet Earth: The mere act of stepping outside drenched us in sweat.

I began school later that month, and -- somewhat to my puzzlement -- joined the rest of my Texas Geography class in tracking the hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. A few weeks later, the 120-mph winds and the 100+ tornadoes of Hurricane Beulah swept through Kingsville, clarifying the intent of the exercise. Shortly thereafter, Dad came home from work one day and found my mother in tears. Don't worry, he said, we'll move in a year or two.

To me, the town was impressively exotic. Cicadas buzzed endlessly all summer long in the stubby mesquite trees whose shade provided respite from the sun but not the heat. The trees broke up a landscape so flat that central Ohio seemed positively alpine in comparison.

I had never seen a Mexican-American in my life; suddenly, I was part of a demographic minority.

Men and women, boys and girls, wore cowboy hats. Occasionally, I'd see someone riding a horse around town, although I never witnessed anyone actually using one of the hitching posts scattered about downtown.

Like just about everyone else in Kingsville, we lived in a one-story house with a flat roof and no basement.

Pick-up trucks were ubiquitous, and some even had rifles on display. (I had never seen a gun before, either. That I had never fired a gun was a fact beyond comprehension for other kids my age.)

There was an annual rattlesnake roundup.

Radios played country-western weepers and Mexican polkas.

The mosquitoes were the size of sparrows. Because Kingsville had no drainage system, there were plenty of them.

My brothers and I got our hair cut at Andrews' Barbershop, Kingsville's leading black business and an social center for the town's African-African males. One of my brothers once requested something other than the usual buzz cut (even in Kingsville, it was the 60s). "I know your daddy," said Mr. Andrews in reference to my father's crew cut, "And you're getting it short."

I discovered later that we didn't patronize certain restaurants because even in the late 60s they reserved the right to refuse service.

And the birds. They were everywhere, and seemingly of every kind. We lived in a veritable aviary of cardinals, doves, kingfishers, cedar waxwings, owls, purple martins, bluejays, greenjays, and hawks. Along the coast one could see pelicans, plovers, oyster catchers, herons, and sandpipers. And more, I have no doubt. I later learned that Kingsville is on the Central Flyway, a migratory channel beginning in Canada that funnels through South Texas on a path to Central and South America.

Ferruginous pygmy owl. For more King Ranch bird photos, click here.

School was different. An acquaintance confided to my parents that the junior high I would be attending, Memorial, was the better of the town's two schools because it had more Anglo students (another new word for me). As it transpired, this meant that Memorial was half-Anglo and half-Mexican, with a few black students thrown in for good measure. There were no other ethnic groups represented at all.

The brown kids called themselves "Mexicans," and the Anglos called them that, too. To the Hispanic students, the word was an expression of heritage and pride. And while I never heard an Anglo student use slurs like "greaser" or "spic," they often used "Mexican" with disdain, a pejorative implying laziness, stupidity, a natural inferiority, and other traits rarely if ever actually witnessed. The open bigotry was a new experience and ran contrary to the values I had learned at home. Though repelled, I was too new and too foreign (a "Yankee," I was informed. But, I nearly said once, I'm a Red Sox fan. I hate the Yankees) to feel comfortable speaking up.

 Memorial Junior High School. Click here for more photos of historic Kingsville.

In eighth grade American History class, I, along with James Gibson, George Gillespie, and James Hill, learned that their ancestors had had it pretty good as slaves -- what with three squares, roofs over their heads, and steady work -- and that the Civil War pushed the slaves into a freedom that they weren't ready for. Moreover, the war itself was all about States' Rights and won by the North only because the drunkard Grant took dishonorable advantage of superior numbers to defeat the noble Lee in a fight he would never have lost had the odds been even. Reconstruction was only slightly more benign than the Nazi occupation of Poland, and the whole country -- especially the newly freed "nigra" -- was better off when the North eventually saw the light and decamped. The South, of course, waited out Reconstruction with the forbearance of Francis of Assisi.

About seven months after we arrived, James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King. Upon hearing some white students mutter that King had had it coming, a teacher whispered that she agreed, then urged them to keep quiet about it. These same kids no doubt cheered the exploits of Karl Douglas, Texas A & I's howitzer-armed black quarterback who later played for the Baltimore Colts.

South Texas is as flat as an ironing board and as wide open as the sea. A farm road intersects Highway 77 between Kingsville and Corpus Christi at a 45-degree angle. When a truck approaches 77 via the road, you can see clear under it to the land beyond. The sky is enormous with sunsets pale pink and purple. We often went outside to take them in, the evening birds fluttering and swooping on their twilight hunt for insects.

Despite my father's prediction, he and my mother settled in Kingsville. She passed away in 1998; he lives there still in the only house he's owned. I left Kingsville for college in 1973 and, except for summer vacations, have not lived there since. I retain an unmatched affection for South Texas and feel the calmness and comfort of true home there. At a class reunion a few years ago, friends who had stayed in Kingsville greeted me like a long lost brother. It hit me that with all of its drawbacks, if the currents of life ever returned me to South Texas, I'd have an instant community welcoming me back.


Roy said...

Huh! And very few of the people I went to school with live in my hometown any more, including me. A lot of us keep in touch, first via Yahoo Groups and now on Facebook, because we live so scattered about the country.

I've been back there, the latest in 1982. I barely recognized it then, and I have it on good authority that now it's unrecognizable to anybody who lived there before about 1975 or so (I moved out in '73); Baltimore basically swelled out and swallowed it up. I don't know anybody there any more, and it's not a place that looks like the home I remember.

You're very lucky to have a "home" to go back to.

Darlene said...

My first reaction to your essay was, "Your poor mother." It must have been a culture shock for her, to say the least. I hope she learned to love it.

Can you ever really go back to your home town after you have left it? I have returned many times to mine, but it changes and so do I. I no longer feel like it is home. My home is where I live now and I don't want to return to my former home, Colorado Springs, even though it is beautiful.

nursemyra said...

what a wonderful window into your history

Sabine said...

This is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your story and the rich history of the town.

T. Clear said...

"I retain an unmatched affection for South Texas and feel the calmness and comfort of true home there."

These sound like the words of some venerable 19th century Southern novelist....

K. said...

Thanks to everyone for the kind words. I was just down there visiting my father; something about this trip made me think back.

What you have to live in South Texas to fully appreciate is that culturally it's neither Mexico nor the United States. (Darlene, I'm guessing that southern Arizona is the same way.) It's really a different country. Mexican men think nothing of wearing cowboys hats and western shirts and listening to country music. Anglos eat Mexican food for breakfast and curse in Spanish. That's facile, but it gives you an idea of what it's like.

Roy and Darlene, Kingsville hasn't changed that much. There's some development along state highway east of town and there are some boarded up buildings, fallout from the 80s oil bust. And, sadly, the Wal-Mart pretty much ruined what was once a bustling downtown.

About twelve years ago, one of my brothers ran into a high school classmate. What have you been up to, he asked. I haven't seen you around.

K. said...

BTW, Darlene, my mother got a master's degree and went on to be a school administrator. She and my father became well-known and respected.

mouse (aka kimy) said...

what a wonderful post - thanks for sharing so much of both your history and the history of that part of texas....places in texas do have the amazing ability to infiltrate one's memory, mind, and heart.

until i left for college - in texas - also in 1973, my family moved frequently and texas and after 6 years it became the place i lived 'the longest' (incidentally, texas was eclipsed by the next place - connecticut - but that's my story) any how, I have fond memories of coming home from our new 'home' to also find my mother crying about the 'new place' and how much she missed the last place.... but then she like your ma always adjusted and became integrated into the community.

the best to your dad - hope he is healthy and hale - I'm sure he is always delighted to get you back home!

what is amusing for me is seeing your our personal histories have a certain parallel-ness - my folks moved to the metro dc area as I was about to enter jr. high school - supposedly for only a few years - and forty-plus years later they are still in the same house but unlike south texas the area has exploded in population - whereas, once their house was considered 'far out' from washington (10 miles to be exact) now they are considered 'close in'

since i married a 'texan' (born in texas, so always a texan) i guess i grew texas roots via marriage and college in texas and always look forward to going back for visits - it is indeed a culturally rich region of our country.

Ima Wizer said...

What nice memories of a hometown you have. Lucky to have grown up there.

K. said...

Mouse: Dad's doing great! Thanks for asking. Like Doug Sahm sang, "You just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul."

Ima: I didn't always feel lucky at the time, but I sure look back on Kingsville with favor. My parents got Danny Young a Kingsville poster for his restaurant. He put it up and invited anyone who had lived there to sign it. The signatures eventually got about five layers thick.

TaraDharma said...

LMAO at "I'm a Red Socks fan!" Wow, culture shock indeed. A look into a culture so different from the one I live in. As a kid in San Diego (also on the Mexican border) I noticed the same things: anglos having mexican food while cursing mexicans. "Mexican" was derogatory for sure. Even now, I cringe a little when saying it. My Mexican friends have helped me get over it.

Keri said...

South Texas is hard to explain, but you did so beautifully! I loved reading this, thank you for writing it.

Nita Lou Bryant said...

Ah, how well I remember fresh-from-Kingsville you as a college freshman! Despite all the years I've known you, reading this more vividly colored in some of your background for me. Nice piece of writing. I enjoyed it. As others have mentioned, you are so lucky to still have your dad around.

tnlib said...

Wonderful look back. Because of your descriptive writing it is easy to close one's eyes and picture each scene. Have driven through there - that ranch is one big place.

I returned to my home town - Nashville about ten years ago. The biggest mistake of my life.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Wow! You had me until the Lightning Hopkins, then just put me away wit'it.
Wow. This is such a great post.

K. said...

TD: The shock was more for my parents; we kids were wide-eyed. Cowboy hats? Horses? Hitching posts?

Keri: Praise from someone who has been there means the most of all! Thanks.

NLB: Dad is a great guy, too. Were you having lunch with us when Bob V. and I tried to explain how flat South Texas was? The table was South Texas and the towns were grains of salt.

tnlib: Regrettably, you can't drive on the ranch anymore. Guided tours only.

Editilla: I knew there was a Flaco Jimenez number about Hurricane Beulah. I was looking for that when I stumbled across Lightin'. It's a find.

Entre Nous said...

Love the old stories, especially any involving Texas. I just love that state. I still have good ole Texas dirt on my boots from the last time I was there. And I do where my hat there!

stupid and contagious said...

Nice piece. Very evocative.

Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

K, great post about Kingsville. It is a unique place. I'll bet most of those who stayed after high school work in some way with the King Ranch. The worst rainstorm I've ever been in was when I was driving through Kingsville on my way to the valley. We had to pull over because we couldn't see 2 feet in front of the car and the water covered the road so we couldn't see the center line.
This is a great post & very descriptive of the area & the time in which you lived there.

K. said...

Thanks, Lizzie. I've experienced a few of those gullywashers myself. When people in Seattle say that it's raining hard here, I think to myself that they don't know the half of it. It's only raining hard when the windshield wipers aren't adequate, and you have to pull over!

The major employers in Kingsville today are probably Texas A&M-Kingsville and the Naval Air Station.

Lydia said...

Beautiful and crystal clear recollections. I loved this post, especially the way it made me dream of all those birds in one place--what great fortune to have seen them, heard their calls.

K. said...

Thanks, Lydia! Whenever I've moved, one of my first instinctive questions is to wonder where the birds are. I suspect that one of the reasons I never became a birder is because I was so used to it being effortless!