God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State (7 page)

Advertising Download Read Online

ONE SPRING DAY
I walked around Sam Houston Park, in Huntsville, with a group of rambunctious seventh graders from The Woodlands, who were on a field trip for their mandatory Texas history class. We peeked through the window of the “Steamboat House” at the bed where Houston died, on the evening of July 26, 1863, spurned by the Texas he had created after laboring to spare it the fate that secession would inevitably impose. The clock on the mantel had been stopped at 6:15 p.m., the hour of his death. The kids groaned when the docent explained the function of the chamber pot next to the bed.
Houston was a product of the populist revolt in America in the 1820s, a period that in many respects resembles our current era. A protégé of fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, Houston was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1823, the same year that Jackson went to the Senate. Four years later, Houston was elected governor of Tennessee. He was a political star, ruled by the populist credo that the people are always right. At this point, one could easily have imagined a different path for him, one that would have led directly to the White House, following in Jackson’s footsteps; certainly, many people expected as much from him. But a disastrous romance would change the course of Houston’s life, and that of the nation.

A friend of mine, historian H. W. Brands, maintains that the founding of Texas was largely the result of the shocking divorce between Houston and his first wife, Eliza Allen, whom he had married in 1829. Houston was thirty-five, tall, handsome, vain, and powerful. Eliza was nineteen, refined, fashionable, and delicate. Eleven weeks after their wedding, Eliza returned without explanation to her parents’ house. Houston resigned as governor, citing “sudden calamities.” The mystery of their estrangement has never been solved. Houston threatened violence against anyone who cast doubt on Eliza’s virtue. He is said to have told a friend that Eliza’s parents had pushed her into the marriage, although she actually loved another man. “Cursed be the human fiends who force a woman to live with a man whom she does not love,” Houston supposedly remarked.

Another theory suggests that Eliza recoiled at the sight of Houston’s disfigured body, which bore three nearly mortal wounds that he sustained in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, as part of General Jackson’s war against the Upper Creek Indians. Early in the battle, an arrow struck Houston in the thigh. He demanded that another soldier rip out the barbed shaft, which created a gaping hole. Jackson ordered him out of the fight, but Houston stumbled to his feet and assaulted the Indian breastworks, only to be shot twice, in the right shoulder and arm. The doctors decided he was certain to die, so they turned their attention to possible survivors. The next morning, when he was found still alive, the surprised surgeons finally treated him. The massive shoulder wound never actually healed, continuing to drain throughout his life.

After his marriage dissolved, Houston fled into Indian country to live with the Cherokees. They called him the Big Drunk. He became a Cherokee citizen and took a native wife. In 1832, like so many with shipwrecked ambitions, he headed to the Mexican colony of Texas to make a new start. Soon he found himself leading a kind of rebel mob that called itself an army. There was little chance that Houston’s forces could defeat the larger, well-trained Mexican forces; but in April 1836, weeks after the Alamo fell, Houston caught the Mexicans napping at San Jacinto.

There is a painting in the Texas capitol of the surrender of Antonio López de Santa Anna. Houston is shown lying on the ground, leaning against a moss-draped live oak, his right ankle bandaged from a stray bullet wound that would render him permanently lame. The camp surgeon sits on his medical box at Houston’s feet. Santa Anna, the greatest general in Mexico’s history, and the most dominant political figure in his country (he would serve eleven terms as president), stands before Houston, hat in hand. He had fled the battle, carrying a box of chocolates, but somehow got unhorsed and was discovered the next day hiding in the grass, wearing the uniform of a private. Behind the dignitaries in the painting stands a white flag with a lone star in its center. That star would become a symbol of the Republic of Texas, and then of the state, representing its defiant sovereignty. The Texian soldiers, without uniforms, wear the rough clothes of frontiersmen. Some of them look ready to lynch the Mexican leader; indeed, one of them has a length of rope. The slaughter at the Alamo had been followed, three weeks later, by the execution of more than four hundred prisoners in Goliad, on Santa Anna’s orders. “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” was the cry of Houston’s bedraggled army as they massacred the Mexicans in turn at San Jacinto. It was all over in eighteen minutes.

There’s another story that Texans tell about the capture of Santa Anna, which has long been regarded as mere legend. Recent scholarship, however, makes it more likely that Houston’s victory at San Jacinto came about in part because of the sly distraction on the part of a serving girl, Emily Morgan. “Why, historians ask, did Santa Anna choose an untenable encampment on the plains of San Jacinto, with the Texan Army in front of him and a bayou prohibiting his retreat?” Steve once wrote in
Texas Monthly
. “Why, on the afternoon of April 21, when he knew that Houston’s forces were only half a mile away, was his army taking a siesta? The answer resounds through the ages: Santa Anna was in a hurry to get into the sack with Emily Morgan.” Whether the legend is true or not—and even Steve has doubts—she is memorialized by the Emily Morgan Hotel, next to the Alamo.

There is a lesson to be drawn from Houston’s career as a populist leader. He would twice be elected president of the Republic of Texas, which his decisive victory had secured. After Texas entered the Union, on December 29, 1845, Houston became one of the first two U.S. senators from the state of Texas. He clearly envisioned the disaster that the proposed Southern Confederacy would inflict on the nation and on Texas: “I see my beloved South go down in the unequal contest, in a sea of blood and smoking ruin.” In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, he was elected governor as a Unionist, but the secessionists were more powerful. Houston’s faith in populism as a force for progress was shattered. “Are we ready to sell reality for a phantom?” Houston vainly asked, as propagandists and demagogues fanned the clamor for secession with deluded visions of victory. To those who demanded that he join the Confederacy, Houston responded, “I refuse to take this oath…I love Texas too well to bring civil strife and bloodshed upon her.” Houston was evicted as governor, and the bloodshed came.

HOUSTON’S NAMESAKE CITY
was founded in 1836, months after his victory at San Jacinto. Two New York real-estate-developer brothers, Augustus and John K. Allen, commissioned Gale Borden Jr., a publisher and surveyor who would later invent condensed milk, to lay out a grand metropolis in the lowlands around Buffalo Bayou. They named the swampy new town after the hero of San Jacinto, but the brand was about the only thing to commend the place for settlement. “Houston (pronounced Hewston) has a reputation of being an unhealthy residence,” Frederick Law Olmsted, a New Yorker, disdainfully remarked on his trip through the state in 1854. He took note of the slave markets and the numerous venomous snakes. “Alligator holes are an additional excitement, the unsuspicious traveler suddenly sinking through the treacherous surface, and sometimes falling victim, horse and all, to the hideous jaws of the reptile.”
After Spindletop hit, Houston discovered itself as the capital of an oil empire. By 1913, there were a dozen oil companies located in the city, including Humble Oil, the predecessor of ExxonMobil. “Houston was a one-industry town,” Stephen Klineberg, the founding director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, said over coffee at a French bakery. “We did oil the way Detroit did cars.”

Klineberg has been conducting an annual survey of the city for the last thirty-five years. When the study began, oil and gas accounted for more than 80 percent of the city’s economy; now, it’s half that. The medical center alone—the largest medical complex in the world—has more than 100,000 workers, in fifty-nine institutions, occupying an area larger than Chicago’s Loop. Houston’s port is the second-busiest in the country. The city added more than 700,000 jobs between 2000 and 2014, almost twice the number of jobs created in New York City. “People complain about the weather and the flying cockroaches, but the latest survey shows that eighty-one percent say life in Houston is excellent or good, even with the downturn,” Klineberg told me. “They say that Houston is a crappy place to visit but a wonderful place to live.”

When I was growing up in Dallas, we looked upon Houston as a blue-collar cousin, a fine place to go if you liked country music and barbecue. That’s still true, but Houston is now rated (by
The Washington Post
) as one of the five best restaurant cities in the United States. It has an excellent opera, and claims to have more theater space than any city except New York—achievements that mark Houston’s aspiration to be an international cultural center. “There was this ad in
Texas Monthly
,” Lynn Wyatt, the long-reigning queen of the Houston social scene, told me. “It said, ‘Houston is’—what’s that awful word?
Funky
. It said, ‘Houston is
funky
.’ I called them up at once! I told them, Houston’s not
funky
! You make it sound like Austin or some such place. Houston is a world-class city.”

I SPENT SOME TIME
in the early 1980s writing about the space program, so I hung around the Johnson Space Center, which is in the Clear Lake area of Houston. A massive Saturn V rocket—the kind that took the astronauts to the moon—reclines on its side at the entryway, like some fallen colossus of an ancient world.
After the glamour days of the race to the moon, the space program had become more prosaic, more workaday, more lunchboxy. I remember seeing the
Columbia
—the first of the shuttle fleet to fly into space—as it passed over our house, in 1981, piggybacked atop a 747, on its way to Cape Canaveral. It was exciting and pitiable at the same instant.
That’s
a rocket ship?

A new generation of astronauts had arrived, and the tone of the space center changed. For one thing, they weren’t all white men. Franklin Chang-Diaz was a plasma physicist from MIT; he was born in Costa Rica and was part Chinese. He showed up on his first day at the Johnson Space Center driving a rusted-out Renault sedan, its doors held shut with ropes, and occupied the same spot where the legendary Wally Schirra, one of the original Mercury Seven, once parked his Maserati. There were still some dashing test pilots among the new group, drawn from the military ranks, like Charles Bolden, a cheerful Marine who would one day become the first black administrator of NASA. Sally Ride, a physicist, was the first American woman in space. Judith Resnik, the first American Jewish astronaut, was a classical pianist and an electrical engineer. Ronald McNair got his doctorate in laser physics from MIT; he had a black belt in karate and played the saxophone. What really impressed me was that he had integrated the library in Lake City, South Carolina, where he grew up, refusing to leave until he was allowed to check out books. His mother and the police were called, but he was finally allowed to become the first black child to borrow books. He was nine years old.

I was a little infatuated with the whole group. They were bright and fit; you could see them running around the track like ponies. There was an emergency-room surgeon from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Rhea Seddon, who took me to lunch in her Corvette. She was also a jet pilot and probably had other skills, such as speaking Mandarin or playing the xylophone. As we raced down NASA Road One, I looked over at Dr. Seddon, with her long blond tresses tossed about like an advertisement for Clairol, and an unfamiliar thought leaped into my mind:
I want to have your baby.

I quickly pushed that aside.

I wrote a profile of one of the early women in the astronaut corps, Mary Cleave, a diminutive woman with an infectious cackle and gray-green eyes that were twice as sharp as normal—pilot’s eyes. But her specialty was sanitary engineering, one area that the geniuses at NASA had never really figured out. The first American in space, Alan Shepard, had to pee in his space suit. After that, there were diapers and a “fecal collection bag” that fit over the hips like a pair of Bermuda shorts. Most astronauts in the early days forced themselves to wait until they got home to defecate. The first true space potty featured a seat that the astronaut could strap himself into. A fan created differential air pressure to simulate gravity, and air jets directed the feces away from the anus. For urination, there was a funnel that fit over the penis. But the potty still needed to be modified to accommodate women. And that’s where Mary came in.

She joined the astronaut corps in May 1980; a year later, she got to see the first launch of
Columbia,
which went flawlessly, except for the fact that the potty broke. When my profile of her came out in
Texas Monthly,
Mary was on the cover, in her astronaut suit, with that giant globed space helmet in her hand. I blithely signed a form obligating me to pay for the helmet if it broke as I ferried it over to the photographer. Half a million dollars.

The astronauts represented the best of America, it seemed to me. They were marvelously accomplished but surprisingly modest; serious but upbeat; and of course their courage was unquestioned. Many of them had sacrificed high-paying positions at universities or in medical practice to take a government job at a fraction of their previous earnings. To a person they were motivated by grand visions of moving humanity into space.

My friend Steve had also covered the space program, so we decided to write a screenplay. It was called “Moonwalker,” about one of the old Apollo guys who gets back into the program and falls in love with a new woman astronaut. Like so many Hollywood scripts, it was always on the verge of getting made. We went to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of STS-9, along with our friend Gregory Curtis, then the editor of
Texas Monthly
. For each of us, it was one of the most thrilling sights we had ever witnessed, despite the fact that the stands were three miles away from the launch pad. “What had been the hazy blip on the horizon suddenly began spewing flames so intense that even at such a distance, you wondered if watching them would damage your eyes,” Greg later wrote. “Huge, roiling clouds of water vapor, pure white, billowed up from the base of the rocket, and then the sound arrived.”

The sonic shock made the ground tremble and knocked shorebirds out of the sky. The spacecraft finally tore itself free of the earth and climbed into the sky, executing a roll that I thought must be dangerous but was of course a natural part of the launch. “When it finally disappeared into the clouds,” Greg wrote, “you continued to watch, with all your nerves revving.”

To our dismay, Steve and I discovered that we had both applied to be the first “journalist in space,” a program that NASA had cooked up to generate public interest, which had plummeted once space flight became routine. I was jealous of Steve, who I was certain would be chosen, and he was jealous of me. We made a deal: whichever one of us actually did get picked would place the other’s latest book into orbit.

Before the journalist in space, however, there was a teacher in space. I had suggested to Roberta that she might want to apply, but she was nonplussed by the idea. Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, got the nod.

Steve and I were working on a rewrite of “Moonwalker” on January 28, 1986, when Roberta came down to my office. She had the flu and wasn’t teaching that day. “Did you hear about the
Challenger
?” she asked. The twenty-fifth space shuttle mission had exploded. The flight lasted seventy-three seconds, then it simply blew to pieces. Weirdly, the announcer continued to broadcast the velocity and distance, even as the capsule, containing those noble lives, fell into the Atlantic Ocean. At least some of the astronauts may have been alive until the capsule hit the water, at more than two hundred miles per hour.

Among the dead were Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space; Judith Resnik, the Jewish American piano-playing physicist; and Ronald McNair, the saxophonist and physicist. They named the library he integrated in South Carolina after him.

Other books
More Than Life by Garrett Leigh
Hackers on Steroids by Oisín Sweeney
This Is All by Aidan Chambers
Archer's Sin by Amy Raby
Guardian Of The Grove by Bradford Bates