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.