Archived Story

On a Texas gravy train with biscuit wheels

Published 11:30am Thursday, January 3, 2013

Column: Tales from Exit 22, by Al Batt

Some area folks, young at heart, but slightly older in other places, spend winters in south Texas. Some people go there just to do nothing. I could be their king.

Others wear long underwear and stay home.

Many of our people are Winter Texans. For Minnesotans, two things are inevitable — death and Texas. Instead of replacing windows, siding and furnace, we replace the weather. We enjoy going to South Padre Island and putting seashells to our ears to hear the neighbors back home shoveling snow. There are many migratory humans (snowbirds) who have to watch The Weather Channel daily in order to maintain their Minnesota citizenship. Locals accuse the visitors from the north of driving too slow in a state where it’s law that you must pass the car ahead of you. One bitter, young Texan told me, “When I retire, I’m going to move to Minnesota and drive slow.”

I was there to speak in Harlingen, located in the Rio Grande Valley. The RGV is the southernmost tip of Texas; so far south that Canada is just a rumor. A fellow with an ample belly covered partially by a belt buckle the size of a hubcap greeted me at the airport. If his belt snapped under pressure, someone was going to be hurt by a flying buckle. It was colder in my Minnesota bedroom than outside the airport. It made me want to hug a cactus. Bill Haley, who ushered in rock and roll, lived and died in Harlingen. He had huge hits in “Rock Around the Clock,” “See You Later, Alligator,” and “Shake Rattle and Roll.” Haley didn’t write the following songs, but if it weren’t for him popularizing the genre, we might have been deprived of such treats as “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” “We Built This City,” and “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Harlingen has an Iwo Jima Memorial. The humbling outdoor sculpture is the original from which the monument in Arlington, Va., was cast and depicts the raising of the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima during World War II. It’s over 100 feet high and weighs 130 tons. It seems larger.

Everything in Texas is, well, Texas-sized. Texas is larger than France, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg combined. Texas has the largest road system of any state with 184,000 lane miles. It has more counties than any state with 254, 41 of them being larger than the state of Rhode Island. Poor Rhode Island. One day, a weatherman will report hailstones the size of Rhode Island. A pecan tree near the state capitol in Austin grows in soils collected from every county. Amarillo is closer to the state capitals of four other states than it is to the capital of Texas — Santa Fe, N.M., Oklahoma City, Denver, and Topeka, Kan. It’s 742 miles from Beaumont to El Paso and 770 miles from Beaumont to Chicago. Cities are named Weeping Mary, Zipperlandville, Looneyville, Noodle, Bug Tussle (bugs so thick that people have to fight with them), Uncertain, and Jot ’em Down.

If it grows, it sticks; if it crawls, it bites. There is a bewildering array of plants that state clearly, “You come near me and I’ll hurt you.” Over 5,000 of the world’s 3,315 species of snakes reside in Texas. There are 43,000 species of spiders in the world and 43,001 of them are found in Texas. Still, the chance of swallowing a spider while sleeping is equal to winning the lottery. Texas has chili that blisters stainless steel and visitors aren’t allowed to bother alligators unless trying to retrieve limbs. A fire ant crawled up my leg and demanded my attention. Fire ants consider flesh a picnic. I’d ignored an important Texas rule — keep moving. Yet, I felt safe in Texas. The leading cause of death is the electric chair.

The state small mammal (longhorn is the large mammal) is the armadillo — opossum on the half-shell. It’s a pineapple with a tail and bad eyesight that sleeps with its feet in the air in the middle of the road. Shel Silvertein wrote, “If you should ever choose to bathe an armadillo, use one bar of soap and a whole lot of hope. And seventy-two pads of Brillo.”

A bull, cow and calf started walking across an endless Texas ranch to find better grazing. After 50 miles, the bull couldn’t take another step. The cow walked 75 miles before giving up. The calf, a male, kept going for 100 miles, proving that in Texas just as in Minnesota, a little bull goes a long way.


Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.