Sunday, 5 September 2010

Texas Mind and Manners

I may be the only person in North America who knows J.R. Ewing only through his B.V.D.’s. I’ve been trying to maintain my TV Dallas virginity as a feeble gesture of protest against all its ubiquitous hype. That way I avoided all the speculation about Bobby’s resuscitation; I never even knew that he had allegedly gone on to the great Nielsen Pollster in the Sky.
 
Another reason is that I love the real Dallas. Not that I expected to. JFK hagiographile that I once was. Let me begin at the end, describing my last visit to Dallas, which began inauspiciously when Greyhound crudely dropped me off in front of its “station” at McKinley, TX (a darkened Texaco gas station) at 5:30 a.m. Oh me, oh my—the first thing I had to do, after an all-night bus ride from Tulsa, was pee. Make that PEE.
 
A nearby convenience store was well lit but had no conveniences for a skuzzy-looking literary pilgrim like me. The clerk pointed to an all-night diner that looked far enough away to be back in Oklahoma. I entered it gingerly, my bladder floating my eyeteeth, and saw that I was the only person without a ten-gallon hat.
 
Dispatching what seemed to me ten gallons of liquid (though urinalysis may be better than mine), I started flipping through their Yellow (ahem!) Pages for a bus, a cab, a chopper, any vehicle to close the 35-mile gap to Denton, TX, and the Sesquicentennial Conference on the Literary Arts in Texas.
 
If I took the next bus to Dallas, 30 miles south, I wouldn’t be back to Denton until the conference was all but over. A scruffy man, a dead ringer for Abe Lincoln, drawled up to me and said, “If you doan mine ridin’ in a beat up ole car (pause) and can afford $35, ah’ll tek ya.”
 
Now since I majored in Yellow at college, with a minor in trepidation, I swallowed my rancher’s steak hard, sloshed a biscuit around in the grits, averted my gaze with a pusillanimous, “Thanks, but I’m looking through the Yellow Pages.” And how. Riffle, riffle.
 
What’s the worst he could do? Dump me, traveler-checkless, onto a cotton patch? Man, you’re in Texas, show some balls, I chided myself. Five minutes later, I eyeballed him and whispered, “Yes.” It was one of the most interesting 45 minutes I have ever spent.
 
Bill was 61 this November. His house burned down on the Fourth of July, his wife is fighting cancer (third remission) and he’s jobless, trying to raise some of the $9,600 he’s been paying off on her account. The car was a mess—a Pontiac Catalina old enough to deserve a historical preservation rehab grant.
 
He was living in it. A white leatherette Bible graced the battered dashboard. About half way there he apologized for the exhaust that was slowly giving us both migraines. “Ah nevah druv it this far before,” he explained. When I queried rhetorically how tough it must be to get welfare in Texas, he sharply rejoined that he wouldn’t know because he’d never tried to get it. “Ah’m nut thet hard up, yit.”
 
Bill was a sharecropper’s son, on the southern tip of Ohio near Chillicothe where it peters out into West Virginia’s hollers. He had dropped out of high school and joined the Navy when they still trained enlisted pilots and had flown Corsairs off carriers. (We agreed, as ex-swabbies, that the 4FU inverted gullwing fighter was the prettiest war plane ever.) He hadn’t gone into civilian aviation after the war because his 6’5” frame disqualified him—and besides, the multi-engine Army guys were already qualified for DC-6’s and Lockheed Electras.
 
What a guy. He had been in the Navy 12 years, counting recall during Korea. Anybody who can take off from a carrier, let alone land there, is de facto a hero of mine.
 
Bill was down on his luck but not on his life. He had four kids who had done creditably in semi-professional jobs. There wasn’t a whine or whimper in his bones. If what Ronald Reagan stands for were idiosyncrats like Bill (instead of the billionaire boodlers who made him a millionaire in California). I’d even vote for Reaganomics. Right, Ron!? (to distort a discredited battle cry of the ‘60’s).
 
So even getting to Dallas, while difficult at times, was a luminous experience. I went up to the Big D after Denton. First off, I wanted to see the newest skyscrapers. Interfirst Plaza is more than OK, but Allied States is simply stupendous, and not just because of Harry Cobb’s thin-skinned cerulean green reflecting surface but because, especially, of Dan Kiley’s water garden, as stunning a mix of water, trees and stone as seen since Versailles geometrized its walks.
 
The precincts are arbified with a conifer that sheds in the winter, thus giving the denizens of its upper floors a continuously changing phantasmagoria of green, yellow and spiky black to play off against the computer-driven jets of water. Oh me, oh my eye—I could hardly break away to the Dallas Museum of Art (it dropped the “Fine” in its name to bring its ethnographic Meso-American and African holdings to aesthetic parity with its more western paintings and sculptures).
 
That’s small “w,” meaning the Western Civilization. In Dallas, capital “W” is reserved for home-on-and-off-the-range paintings, such as the remarkable recent show synchronized with University of Texas / Austin Americanist William Goetzmann’s PBS series The West of the Imagination, which, ironically, began with Philly’s Charles Willson Peale who inveigled sluggard arts patrons into his culture-trap museum with Mastodon bones and paintings of their exhumation at the front door.
 
The Goetzmann effort’s final episode, “Enduring Dreams,” explores the ambiguous and ambivalent ways the Taos groups (first painters, then Mabel Dodge Luhan’s coterie) use “the West” for their own intellectual and emotional purposes.
 
Especially interesting are the sections which deal with the dust bowl and with the emergence of Amerinds giftedly recycling our Modernism for their own purposes of pan-Indian solidarity. The series is unusually canny in the way it juxtaposes documentary images and “created” images in painting and sculpture as a way of getting at the spirit of an artist or group.
 
These tapes should be replayed through our secondary schools post haste; they are exemplary. I haven’t seen the book by Goetzmann yet, except to riffle through its color plates at the DMA, but I can’t imagine it is any less intelligent—probably more so since academics are generally better with paragraphs than with film footage.
 
I’m a little edgy about Goetzmann’s too complacent answer to James Whitmore in the wrap-up—that our Western myth is flourishing because the cowboy and Mickey Mouse are America’s most beloved ambassadors abroad. He didn’t amplify the Mouse allusion, but we know from the wire services that China just Mickied out and Peking’s ducks have been correspondingly beDonalded.
 
How that helps America (as opposed to the imagineers at Walt Disney Enterprises) is beyond me, unless “What’s good for Disney is good for the country,” a perturbation devoutly to be unwished. Still, I’m grateful to Goetzmann for tying so many diverse strands of our westerning experience together with such visual richness. To err is human, to demur is the critic’s function.
 
Frankly, I’ve had more than enough Charles Russell and Frederic Remington for a couple of lifetimes, but the Dallas show was fascinatingly rich in minor, unseen westernists, such as Dean Cornwell’s “The Dude’s Last Con,” a tableau of a terrified city slicker getting his grotty comeuppance in a jail cell, with a narrative style that makes you understand where Norman Rockwell was coming from (Cornwell was his teacher).
 
And there was a luminous Georgia O’Keeffe, “Dead Tree, Bear Lake, Taos, New Mexico” (1930) which makes you regret she spent so much canvas on flowers and skulls. I also relish Raymond Johnson’s desert Southwest / precisionism as in “Trimmed Trees” (1925). And Marsden Hartley’s crypto-abstract number on “American Indian Symbols” (1914) is a visual romp of the first order.
 
But save time for Fair Park, a $5 cab ride to the east, which gained National Historic Site status for highlighting of the Texas Sesqui State Fair. Dallas clout got the State Fair in 1936—properly, it belongs in the state capitol of Austin—as a depression WPA caper to celebrate the state’s centennial.
 
The Friends of Fair Park have perked it up with a combination of big gifts, small donations (you can buy a tile for the ceremonial walkway that runs through the grounds) and savvy lobbying for public funds.
 
I liked it in 1980 when I saw it for the first time while doing a story on the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, before it moved downtown in 1984, I loved it in its rehabbed glory, all that Texize glitz burnished in the fall sun. What was the DMFA is now the Science Place, an ambitious new venture to give Dallas a world-class science museum.
 
Right now (through December 15) there’s the much-travelled—I saw it open in Toronto in 1982—but nonetheless beguiling megashow on Chinese science. It was good enough in Toronto, but its even better here, because the Dallasites who back up the tongue-tied Chinese crafts people are so outgoing and easy to palaver with you spend more time looking and felling than you did in Toronto. Texans are warm suckers—when they’re not impossibly aloof.
 
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 10, 1986

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