Thursday, June 11, 2015

Alzheimer's and zombies

Daddy, Christmas 2012

My dad wasn't a rocket scientist, but he came close. He was a nuclear physicist with a near photographic memory. When the Alzheimer's disease kicked in, it made him furious.
The son of a career master sergeant in the Army Air Corps/Air Force, Bob Young got his bachelor's degree and a master's at Baylor University, another master's and a PhD at Rice University and in between, spent two years in the Air Force to fulfill his ROTC commitment. He and Mama got married between Baylor and the Air Force, and over the next several decades they raised four children. I am the oldest. He taught at Houston Baptist when it first opened and eventually worked for IBM, helping them do tests for Dow Chemical to see how some of their chemicals would react in a nuclear explosion.
Daddy could focus on what he was doing to the exclusion of everything else, which made him a great scientist in the absent-minded professor mode. At dinner time, when Mama parceled out the chores, one of us would always be assigned to call him and remind him it was time to come home and eat. More than once when we went to pick him up at work, he would open his briefcase to put his things away and say, "Hmm. No wonder I'm hungry. I forgot to eat my lunch today." In those days, it was funny.
Both of my paternal grandparents died of Alzheimer's, so Daddy knew he had a good chance of getting the disease. My parents lived in Austin when we first started noticing Daddy having trouble with his driving and finding his way around. They decided to move to the small town where my youngest sister lived and God's providence found them a house right next door to hers.
The move brought their struggles into focus. Daddy went out for a walk along the river and got lost. For the first time ever, he couldn't manage to get their taxes done and I took that job over. (I mailed everything to my CPA brother-in-law.) Daddy had notes to himself stacked up beside the mouse pad of his ancient computer, reminding him how to get in to his e-mail. He had created methods for coping. But he wasn't.
My gentle, intellectual father had zombies eating his brain. They're invisible, insatiable and a shotgun is absolutely no use against them. There is virtually nothing that science can do for this disease. Physically, he was healthy as a horse, but mentally... Alzheimer's changed his personality. He knew he was forgetting things and it made him angry. Angry enough to strike out, and the closest target to hand was Mama.
She would hide her bruises from us, understanding that he didn't mean it. But it's too hot in Texas for long sleeves in July, and eventually we saw them. We understood it too, but it was also our job to protect her. For a while, they lived in separate bedrooms, but eventually we had to move him out of the house.
Daddy, Mama, and two of my grandboys at the nursing home
For about a year and a half, he lived at a nursing home in their small town where Mama could come visit him. But when he started pushing the nursing home attendants around, we had to find somewhere else to take him. I called The Cottages Assisted Living in League City, and once again, God had his hand in things. They had room for one male patient.
We moved him to Galveston County two days later, in October of 2012. When we went to pack him up for the move, he kept reminding us how to find his room and which way "out" was. He was ready to go. But once again, the move created a turning point.
Memory loss is not the whole of this disease. The zombies start by eating memory and personality, but they end by destroying everything. Alzheimer's is a terminal disease. Eventually, physical capabilities are taken as well.
The people at The Cottages took wonderful care of Daddy, but he quickly began to have trouble walking and seeing. They got him a walker for his balance, but he either forgot to use it or he picked it up and carried it around. We took him to the eye doctor about his cataracts, but the doctor said he could apparently see more than he could understand what he was seeing. We decided cataract surgery would just hurt him. He forgot our names, but he always seemed to recognize that whoever we were, we belonged with him.
That December, one of the regular entertainment ladies was doing her Christmas carol-patriotic song program and as I walked into the living room of The Cottages with Daddy she was singing "The Star Spangled Banner." All of a sudden, Daddy's thin tenor was belting out "And the rocket's red glare." He couldn't remember all the words, but he could sing the tune. We sat down and sang all the Christmas carols he knew. That was the last semi-lucid day he had.
His words became word hash. He felt his way around the halls because he couldn't tell what he was seeing. And I began to pray that the Lord would bring him home. Daddy was stubborn. He wasn't going to go one second earlier than he had to and while his brain was dissolving, his heart, lungs and all the other parts were still going strong.
He began to fall. We were called to the hospital a number of times because he had fallen. It was a struggle to keep him in the hospital bed and to keep him from pulling off all his attachments. He had to have a sitter when we weren't there, to keep him in place. But he always got to go back "home." Then he fell hard enough to fracture his skull.
The only treatment for that was to drill holes and suction out the air and fluid that got in. That was just too much. Not only did he not know us, he didn't even know the world around him. It was time to call in hospice. Mother came down to stay with us and we drove up to sit with him every day. Darned if he didn't hang in almost two more weeks. He died at the end of February 2013, two years after he first moved into the nursing home.
Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia strike different victims in different ways. My mother has also been diagnosed with it, but hers has progressed much more slowly and she forgets that she can't remember. It doesn't make her so angry. But it's still a terminal disease. One that can take years to claim its victims. And the victims include the family members.
It never did bother me much when Daddy didn't remember things, like when he remembered our cousin Paul but not my brother Steve. It wasn't him, it was the zombies. I didn't expect anything from him. He didn't even have to know me, because by this time, it wasn't about him loving me. He'd loved me all my life. I knew he loved me, even if he couldn't remember it. It was my turn to love him and take care of him. I'm glad I had the opportunity.
That's how you get through something like this. You can't expect anything from someone with dementia. You can't blame yourself for things that happen. You can't blame them. All you can do is love them, and be grateful for the opportunity. And if you need somebody to blame, blame the zombies.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Small towns in Texas (Texas for Writers #11)

I've just about decided that small towns in Texas must be different from small towns in other areas. But then, they're pretty similar to the small towns I've visited across the west, in New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Oklahoma, etc. When we made a trip across New England a couple of years ago, however, those small towns were definitely different from the ones I've known. They were a lot richer, and yes, I'm talking money. I couldn't say why this was so, just take my word for it--it definitely seemed this way
House falling off cliff at Lake WhitneyI have lived in small Texas towns for the past thirty-plus (30+) years. I married the fella before he finished his Master's degree and we moved to the town of Hillsboro, Texas, shortly after our first anniversary. At that time, Hillsboro still had a population of less than 10,000. All of Hill County had a population of right around 30,000. We lived there about three years and moved to Whitney on the west side of the county when our daughter was a year old. The actual town of Whitney is less than half the size of Hillsboro, but since the Whitney dam was built on the Brazos River back in the 1960s to control flooding downstream in Waco, people have moved into homes all along the lake, (Remember that house on the cliff that fell into the lake? That was on Lake Whitney), so the Whitney area population is much larger than just the town. The Whitney school district is close to the same size as Hillsboro, and in fact, the two schools are big football rivals. We lived in Whitney until our daughter got married, when she was 20.

And when we left Whitney, we moved to Clarendon, up in the Texas Panhandle. Clarendon was less than half the size of Whitney--population just under 2,000 when the junior college was not in session and just over, when it was. But Donley County is not on an Interstate highway, nor is it in the heavily trafficked "Golden Triangle" (Dallas/Fort Worth-Austin/San Antonio-Houston). It is on the main four-lane divided highway from Fort Worth to Amarillo and the mountains beyond (honestly, US 287 is the main drag for DFW residents to go snow skiing), which is why it's surviving as well as it is. Plus it has that junior college and a little lake a few miles north of town. (Remember, all lakes in Texas are man-made. In this case, they dammed up the Salt Fork of the Red River.)

We left the Panhandle for the Gulf Coast--still in Texas--about 7-1/2 years ago to live in a town of just under 50,000 (since Hurricane Ike), which in many places might be called a small town. After the places I've lived, I was thrilled to move to a town that had a Wal-Mart AND a Target. And even a Home Depot!

I am telling you all this so that you know that I know what I'm talking about when I talk small towns in Texas. I've lived there. I think I've driven through half of them. Well, maybe not half, but a bunch! How many of you can say they've driven through Idalou, Floydada (pronounced Floy-DAY-da), and Old Dimebox? How many of you know where they all are? Then there's Matador, where my parents were married, and Cut-and-Shoot, which I've never been to, but I love the name, and Clemville, where my mama lived as a little girl during the Great Depression. I'm not sure Clemville is even a town, these days.

pickupAnyway. Most small towns in Texas don't have a lot of money. The people tend to be school teachers or small business owners or farmers and ranchers. Those folks usually have enough money to get by, live in a pretty nice house, etc., but generally, they aren't going to be rich. And a lot of the people in a small town are going to be poor. Really poor. The rural poor tend to be both poorer and richer than the urban poor. Social services are much, much less available. There is zero public transportation. But, they can plant gardens to help feed themselves. Then again, tools and seed cost money and a lot of them don't have enough to buy a rake or a shovel. Transportation is the important thing.

Also, in these small towns, the nice brick houses and the houses built of cinder blocks and plywood might be only a few vacant lots apart. The poor kids and the rich kids go to the same school, because there is only one school. One elementary, one junior high, one high school. There can be an "across the railroad tracks" or "living on the wrong side of the tracks" mentality, but often, if they're good kids who participate at school, it's not a given.

Whitney and Hillsboro both are about 30 miles from Waco (which is about 200,000 in population. It is as big as Buffalo, NY, or Pittsburgh, PA. Yes. It is.) and Clarendon is about 60 miles from Amarillo (which also has about 200,000 population. Yes, Amarillo, TX, is as big as Pittsburgh, PA.). Of those three towns, only Hillsboro was considered big enough for its own Wal-Mart. I think it got a Super Wal-Mart because it's on I-35 where I-35E to Dallas and I-35W to Fort Worth split, or come together again, depending on whether you're going north or south.

To some extent, the number of stores and restaurants in a small town and the health of those businesses depends on its distance from a larger city. If it's just as easy to run in to Waco as to drive over to Hillsboro, guess where the people are going to go? Because Waco has more stores.Highways also contribute. Hillsboro only got a McDonald's because it's on that Interstate. Clarendon has a Dairy Queen. But when DQ was closing stores across Texas, Clarendon and Quanah got to keep theirs and other towns didn't. Because both towns are on US 287.

Generally, the stores that are going to thrive in a small town are going to be more general, and in most small Texas towns, at least half the store fronts will probably empty. Some towns--Calvert, on Texas Highway 6 between College Station and Waco, for instance--have almost all of their stores totally shut down. But in most towns, you're going to have a pharmacy. Maybe two. If the town is big enough, the pharmacy will have more than just the drug dispensary at the back. If it's not, the pharmacy might be tucked into the back of a gas station. There will probably be a video/DVD rental place, maybe stuck onto another business, for the people who can't do Netflix or buy their own DVDs.

KolachesThere will probably be a homegoods type store. In Clarendon, it had housewares on one side of a divider wall and auto parts, tires, and hardware on the other. The housewares included china, crystal, and a wedding registry. There will likely be a clothing store. Again, the store might be part of a store that sells something else, or it might be standalone, but it will probably sell everything from Dickie's work coveralls to baby clothes to nice ladies' dresses. There will be a "dollar store" of some kind, and a ranch and feed store. But unless your small town is a big tourist town--and I'm talking hordes of people--a small specialty boutique is not going to survive. The more kinds of things a store can sell, the more likely it will stay in business. A bakery might be hard put to do it, unless it's on a highway and has a gas station attached. (There are a lot of those, and they make some mighty good kolaches.)

(Okay, a break for an "only in Texas" moment. My son and I were driving along Broadway in Galveston not long after we moved--before the hurricane--and we passed a store with a sign that read "Donuts. Burritos. Kolaches." He burst out laughing, because is there anywhere else in the U.S. besides Texas where those three things go in the same shop? Oh, and the owners of Broadway Donuts were actually Greek and made the best baclava to go with the burritos and kolaches...)

I have not been to a small town that had a surviving YMCA. A lot of them have old buildings that used to be a Y, but not any that are currently under operation. In Clarendon, the old YMCA building has been turned into City Hall. Very few have a movie theater, and those that do have one, it's generally a drive-in. Remember, warm weather lasts from March through October, at least, in most of Texas, and even on Midsummer's Day, the sun goes down before 10 p.m. There are a lot of still operating drive-in theaters in rural Texas.

QuanahDQAs far as restaurants and bars go, there will probably be a few. Might be a mom-and-pop home-cooking-type diner. There will probably be a Dairy Queen, or its ilk. There might be a taqueria or some kind of Mexican food place. (Tex Mex is a legitimate cuisine and don't let anybody tell you it's not "real Mexican food." It's border cooking.) If the food is good, though, people will come to eat it, whatever kind of place it is. Hillsboro had a Chinese restaurant, Kim Son, in a converted laundromat. Don't know if it's still there, but it did a big business. Hillsboro supports quite a few restaurants--but it's on an Interstate. Whitney had surprisingly few places to eat in town, and even around the lake, when we lived there. It had a Dairy Queen and another burger place, and that was pretty much it. There was a Mexican restaurant for a while that was fair... I'm sure there are more places to eat now. Clarendon, small as it is, supports at least three restaurants, sometimes four.

The bar in a Texas small town, if there is one, will probably be on the outskirts of town, or farther. (See my post on Texas Liquor Laws.) You might have to go to the next county to find your honky-tonk.

A lot of the restaurants that have closed in the towns where I lived did not necessarily close because they couldn't make money. A lot of times it was for personal reasons. One closed because the owner couldn't keep his hands off the high school girls he had working for him and the girls' parents made a stink. He sold it to somebody else who opened it again and it did well. One closed because the owner just didn't want to work that hard. One--a great Italian place in an old DQ building--closed because the owner had a big blowup with his boyfriend or girlfriend (I don't remember which) and went back to Italy. One guy bought the steakhouse in town and closed down his Mexican place because he didn't want to keep both places open. But you could still get the Mexican dishes at the new place, even if they weren't on the menu. You just had to know to ask Mr. Hernandez to fix them for you.

I'm going to put schools in a different post--this one's long enough as it is. I'll probably think of something else when I read about it in a book, but for now, these are the main things I have thought needed explication. Any questions, just ask.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Struggles and brainlessness

So, okay. It's been almost a year since I last posted anything here. And basically, I have no excuses. We went on a trip to Vancouver and Seattle not long after that last post where I blew out my knee--not the knee I usually have trouble with, the other one. Which, I think, rendered me brainless. I didn't actually do any major damage to the thing, it just hurt a lot. I was on crutches for a couple of weeks, got shots in the knees, did physical therapy, and gradually got to where I could walk again. The process, by the end of it, took months.

But the brainless thing didn't seem to improve. I was busy, mostly working for other people, and took note of things I needed to do. I just didn't do them fast enough. Like maintaining my website. I decided to transfer the registration of my domain name, but in the middle of getting the job done, my computer with all the e-mail accounts had to go into the shop, twice, my phone went on the fritz, and I may have left town somewhere in there. Anyway, by the time I got myself back together, somebody in Japan hijacked my gaildayton-dot-com domain.

You may have noticed that you get some random search thing if you try to look at that domain. This is why. I have not disappeared (though sometimes it probably feels like it). I just got hijacked. I haven't yet tried to buy back the domain. I may not.

What I have done is register the gaildayton-dot-net domain. I have not yet transferred my website to that location, but I will. I might even get it done this week. I will come back and report here when I do. This means that I will have to find my brain from wherever it has wandered off to and put it back where it belongs. This will not be an easy task, but it's got to be done. ;)

If you want to get in touch with me, the best way is probably through comments here, or at my GoodReads page. I'm over there as GailDayton. We can be friends! :) I do compare books with those who ask to friend me, to see if we have anything in common, if I don't already know you. But I have 3,500 books on my "already read" list. Surely there's something in that massive list that you have already read too.

I will also work at getting back to the "Texas for Writers" series of blogs. I know. I'm being VERY slow. sorry.

In other news, the fella and I went on our first cruise this summer. We figured it was about time, since cruises leave several times a week from the port downtown. We left our cars at home, took a taxi down to the terminal, and sailed to Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. It was a lot of fun, and we didn't get sunburned! I sang karaoke, we went snorkeling (my first time), the fella bought a big wooden fish, we got sloshed around in the whirlpool spa-- And were very lazy.

Now that school is back in session, life on Galveston Island has slowed way down. We don't have to fight traffic quite so much on weekdays, or even weekends. The weather hasn't started cooling down yet, but we've been getting a decent amount of rain--though we're still behind the yearly average. September tends to be the rainiest month. I've bought a new orchid from the grocery store, and one of my old ones is putting up a pair of flower stems. I'll take a picture once it blooms. Oh, and one of my new daylilies made seeds, so I'm going to plant them and see if I can get them to grow. My oldest grandboy is now 13, and is taller than me. He's in 7th grade and his daddy is having to threaten the girls at his school to stay away. He is awfully cute.

Y'all hang in there, and if you happen to see my brain go wandering by, give me a holler...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Texas Government--At the Local Level (Texas for Writers #10)

I was going to do another regional/geographic post--The Hill Country next, I think--but I decided I ought to go ahead and finish up talking about Texas Government and get it over with. Schools will go into another post all together, but I'll talk about county government here and the government that the average person will bump up against.

Hill County Courthouse, Hillsboro, built 1890
Texas is rightly famous for its courthouses. There are 254 counties in Texas. Most of them are about 1000 square miles, though some, like Rockwall and Somervell Counties, are extra small, and others, like Brewster and Pecos Counties in the Big Bend, are extra large. Most of the courthouses were built in the late 1800s as a beacon for local pride.

I am going to include the courthouses for the various counties I have lived in--most of them anyway. The Galveston County Courthouse is probably the most modern of them, and I'm going to say that's because of the hurricanes that come through here on a regular basis. Galveston has always been the county seat and since it's on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, it's not a question of IF a hurricane is coming through. It's a question of WHEN. Anyway, this first courthouse pictured is the one where I worked for a number of years. I only got to work in the actual courthouse about a year--10 months at the beginning and about 2 months at the end of my work time here. It caught fire on January 1, 1992, and for the next several years, we worked in our chicken wire and plywood annex a block away.
Hill County Courthouse, Jan. 1, 1992

 When I started, I worked in an office carved out of the district courtroom on the second floor just across from the windows above the door in the non-fire picture. After the restoration, the district courtroom was put back into its original condition, and the county attorney's office was moved to the third floor on the south east corner (the left side of the visible face in the picture), just under the mini-tower on the corner.

Counties in Texas are governed by the commissioner's court which is presided over by the county judge. This is an administrative, executive position, NOT a judicial position. Originally, it was both, but in most counties, they have created County Courts at Law which have taken over all the judicial tasks.

When I worked at the courthouse, back in the '90s (we moved to the Panhandle and Donley County in 1999), the county judge still handled the judicial responsibilities because the Texas Constitution had a Hill County-specific constitutional amendment placing the county court under the supervision of the district court. Now, there is a county court at law in Hill County and an old friendly acquaintance of mine is the judge. (I'm tickled pink about it. He's a good guy. I'm sure he's an excellent judge.) However, there are still some rural counties where the county judge handles the judicial responsibilities.

Donley County Courthouse, Clarendon, built 1890
The commissioner's court is the legislative body of the county and they are in charge of the county's budget. Even though all those other people--from the sheriff to the tax assessor-collector--are elected, the commissioner's court is in charge of how much money they get. This can make things awkward when the officials get crosswise with each other. I remember one instance when the sheriff in Tarrant County (Fort Worth) was doing some things the commissioners didn't like--buying helicopters and other "crazy" things--and they tried to bring him to heel by cutting off his funds. Didn't work too well.

There are four commissioners in each county. Besides being in charge of setting the county's budget and passing local ordinances (very few) and approving residential plats (very few bother to ask for approval), the commissioners are in charge of the construction and maintenance of the roads and bridges in their precinct. (They even put up pictures of it on the county website...) This is why county commissioners are often called Road Commissioners. The names are pretty much interchangeable, especially in the rural counties. Tommy Joe Davis, who was tax assessor-collector when I lived in Hill County, used to joke that the best way to get new computers for the courthouse offices was to paint them yellow and stick a grading blade on the front. It can sometimes be hard to get road commissioners to approve funds for anything but road repair equipment.

McLennan County Courthouse, in Waco, built 1901
Yes, it can be confusing to have the CEO of the county called the county judge, and the judges of the county courts at law (which are primarily criminal courts handling misdemeanors, but can also handle some minor civil matters) all called county judges. But only one is The County Judge. And he's the only one who isn't an actual judge in a court of law.

(I lived in McLennan County while I was attending Baylor University, which is in Waco, and we lived there the first year the fella and I were married, while he was finishing up his Master's.)

By the state constitution, each of the 254 counties has four justices of the peace and four constables. Texas JPs have constitutionally been the ones to pronounce cause of death, and at least one of them is famous for having declared the cause of death to be "lead poisoning" because the dead man got shot full of lead bullets. These days, they do not have to be lawyers, but they do have to attend quite a bit of training. In most places they no longer have to go out to deaths, unless it's a very rural county, but they still have to sign the paperwork. They also preside over courts handling traffic tickets in the rural areas, and like all the other judges, they can marry people. (The district court judge in Hill County--a good friend and second cousin once removed of the fella's--performed the wedding of our older son.) (District judges can also waive the three-day waiting period of the marriage license, if you need that in your story.)

Armstrong County Courthouse, built 1912
At the moment, Galveston County has nine (9) justices of the peace, and I think, 9 constables to go with them. (The constitution allows the county to create more, but each county has to have at least four.) The current commissioner's court is trying to reduce that back to the constitutional four to save money, and of course, the JPs are fighting them because they don't want to lose their jobs. It's a big political mess, and quite the fight.

(I never lived in Armstrong County, but I drove through Claude once a week, right by the courthouse, on my way into Amarillo, when we lived up that way. It has one of the more modern-looking courthouses... The city-county library is in the basement...)

Constables provide security for the JP courts, and spend most of the rest of their time on the job as process servers. This saves the sheriff money and time having his/her personnel doing the job. We have to have constables anyway, so they may as well take some of the work from the sheriff's office. But they don't always. Only if the sheriff wants to give the work away. And remember, all these people are elected. Every single one of them.

Parker County Courthouse, Weatherford, 1894
I've mentioned the tax assessor-collector a number of times. This is another elected office, and one of the few constitutionally mandated county-wide elected offices. (District judges and district clerks are elected, but sometimes they're for more than one county, and sometimes, there's more than one in a county.) The tax assessor-collector collects taxes for the county but can also collect them for other governmental entities. School districts, community college districts, MUDs, even smaller cities can and often do contract with the tax assessor-collector. They are the ones who handle car registrations (license plates) and car titles. The tax assessor-collector office even issues the beer and wine sales permits.

(I never lived in Parker County, but doesn't the courthouse look like the one in Hillsboro? Except the roofs are colored! And it's only two stories... Or looks like it.)

Every county in Texas has a sheriff. But the sheriff in an urban county has somewhat different responsibilities than one in a rural county--or, rather, he is charged with the same responsibilities: maintaining and operating the county jail and policing the unincorporated areas of the county. But those duties play out differently in rural and urban areas.

Galveston County Courthouse, Galveston, 1966
Most urban counties, especially the ones with the "big six" cities, don't have a lot of unincorporated land. The city--or cities, because most of them have suburbs in the county with the city--fill it all up. Tarrant County has Fort Worth, but it also has Arlington, Hurst, Euless, Bedford, North Richland Hills, Saginaw--and probably more, but I'm not sure if they're all in Tarrant County. Same with Dallas. Dallas County also has Irving, Grand Prairie, Richardson, Plano, Mesquite, etc., etc. But not much territory that's not inside the limits of all those cities. Harris County, where Houston is, has more unincorporated land than most large-city counties, because it's a large county. But still, it doesn't have nearly as much as Brewster County. Or even Briscoe County. Because those are rural counties.

(The 1899 Galveston County Courthouse was across the street from this one, but it was torn down in 1966. It's entirely possible that the old one was damaged badly in Hurricane Carla in 1961, but I can't find any confirmation of that. This one was finished only five years after Carla, which is really soon, given how slowly things move in government, especially after hurricanes. There are no courts of law in this courthouse. The federal court is in the post office/federal building down on 25th Street, and the state and county courts are in the new justice complex right at the entrance to the island on Broadway.)

Old Galveston County Courthouse, 1899, demolished 1966
What those large counties do have is lots of criminals. They need big jails. So urban sheriffs spend most of their time managing the county jail. The county jail is required to hold the people the cities arrest until they make bail or go to court. Most cities have fairly small jails, because they're expensive and because they only have to hold arrestees long enough to cart them over to the county jail. This is why the Tarrant County commissioners got so peeved with their sheriff, because he was buying helicopters to police the unincorporated parts of the county, and Tarrant doesn't have much in the way of unincorporated parts. The commissioners thought he should spend more money on the jail. Remember, the sheriff is an elected position. He has to run for office every four years. Used to be every two, but now it's four. The sheriff runs when the governor runs, which is in the even-numbered year between presidential elections.

Bexar County Courthouse, San Antonio, 1896
Even in rural counties, the way the sheriff does things can be different. In Hill County, which was and is a rural county, there were four fair-sized cities: Hillsboro, Whitney, Itasca and Hubbard. (There are also the micro-cities of Aquilla, Brandon, Blum and maybe one other, but those cities are really small and don't have their own police.) Hillsboro had a population of just over 5,000 when we lived there, now it's about 8,500. The other cities are smaller. But they all had their own police departments. Hillsboro had about 10 or 15 officers, and even had a two-man detective bureau. Whitney had 3 to 5 officers, Itasca and Hubbard each had two. The sheriff backed them all up, and policed everything else. The sheriff had more deputies than any of the police departments. When that boy was running from the police in his cotton stripper, he was running from the sheriff's deputies.

(I included the Bexar County Courthouse because it has such a distinctive look. Plus my dad lived in San Antonio. But really, what other government building has such a phallic looking red tower???)

When we moved to Donley County, the largest town in the county, Clarendon, had a population of just under 2,000. Howardwick, the town out by Greenbelt Lake, had a population of 300 or so, and Hedley is about the same size. And the sheriff policed it all. Clarendon didn't want to have to hire police officers. They helped pay for the sheriff's office, but the sheriff handled everything. And the jail was on a corner of the courthouse square. Thing is, because the county is so rural--all those cows don't commit much crime--and it's not on the Mexican border, so the sheriff and his not-very-many deputies could handle pretty much everything. There were some highway patrolmen who lived in town, too. The road from Dallas to the skiing mountains in Colorado runs through Donley County, so people had/have a bad tendency to speed. Clarendon only had one stop light. Did they really have to run it?

Wise County Courthouse, Decatur, 1896
One more thing. I had a friend who wanted to write a book where the hero's and the heroine's relatives were running for the same local office--county commissioner or something--so that the politics would amp up both the humor and the conflict in the story. And her editor (from New York City) thought they should be running for the Senate (The U.S. Senate, not the state senate), because local politics just wouldn't be important enough to create much conflict. And that's just wrong.

(Never lived in Wise County either, but drove through Decatur a lot of times. It's on the same highway Clarendon is, just a lot closer to Fort Worth. And I like their courthouse.)

First off, a person running for senator in Texas would be running a statewide race. And Texas is a really wide state. Remember, it's almost 1000 miles from top to bottom, side to side. They would be spending most of their time running from one side of the state to the other, from one of the Big Six cities to the other. They wouldn't have time to get personal. It's not a personal race. And that's the thing about local politics. It's personal.

People tend to get a whole lot more "het up" about local races than they do about political races where they don't have to deal with the elected official every day. When the winner goes way off somewhere, like Austin, or even Washington, D.C. Maybe those larger races carry more clout in the larger world. But they're not important. They're not personal. It's not Butch from down the street trying to cut out John from church in that respected role. Or even Aunt Myrtie. Local elections can create a whole lot more conflict than any statewide or even national election any day. Especially in a small town in a rural county.

What else might you want to know?

Montague County Courthouse, Montague, 1912
Oh. A couple of "pronounciation" things: Montague County. It's not pronounced "MON-ta-Gue" (rhyming with glue or Gru from Despicable Me), it's pronounced "Mon-Tayg" (with a hard G at the end and both syllables getting the same emphasis). And Borger (historic oil town in the Panhandle, with a still operating oil refinery) is pronounced with a hard G. It's not "Bor-jer."

This is NOT a comprehensive, formal survey of local Texas government. It's just a bunch of stuff writers might want/need to know. A jumping-off point for things to research. Hope it helps somebody...

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Texas Government: How We Got This Way (Texas for Writers # 9)

Most folks who observe Texas politics and government are pretty much in agreement with the late, great Molly Ivins. Texas government is a spectator sport.

That being said, The Main Thing that a writer must remember is that at the local level most people write about--Everybody's elected. All the bosses are, anyway. And there is no such thing as a concentration of power. Or even a city school district. The schools--and sometimes the utilities, and other stuff I'm not remembering right now--are run by their own independently elected board of trustees. As are the junior colleges.

The four-year state colleges have appointed boards, and there are a few other state-level committees and boards that are appointed. But the State Board of Eduction is elected. The Railroad Commission--which does regulate railroads and transportation, but more importantly, is in charge of mineral licensing and how much oil, gas, etc. can be taken out of the ground--is elected. However, who's going to write about the Railroad Commission? Well, maybe somebody will come up with a great way to bring them into a murder mystery that starts with corruption in the commission and links to Big Oil and wildcatters and... Go ahead and use that one. My brain hurts already.

The main thing to remember is that Everybody's Elected. I mean, EVERYBODY. Which makes for a lot of peculiarities. I've lived here all my adult life, so I'm used to it. Every school district is an ISD (Independent School District), so there's GISD for Galveston Independent School District, and FWISD for Fort Worth Inde-- etc., etc. And MUD stands for Municipal Utility District.

And nobody's in charge of anybody else. I used to work for the County Attorney in Hill County where I-35 splits to go to Dallas AND Fort Worth. He's an elected official like all the others, and sometimes people would get mad at him for not prosecuting a misdemeanor case the way they thought he should, or for prosecuting somebody they didn't think should be, or for talking to them wrong, or not talking to them, or whatever, and they would want to talk to his boss. And I would get to gently explain that if the angry person was a voter in Hill County, then they were his boss, along with all the other voters in Hill County. But otherwise, he didn't have one. Because he was an elected official. As you can imagine, if all those elected officials get along fine, things work. If they don't...

How did we get this way? Well. It all goes back to the Civil War.

Texas was a part of the Confederacy. Secession was not unanimous. Sam Houston was one of the most prominent of those opposed to leaving the United States but his attitude didn't prevail, and he was deposed as governor and dropped from polite society. Very little of the Civil War took place in Texas. Mostly Texas participated by sending Hood's Texas Brigade and a lot of other soldiers. Galveston was briefly occupied by the Union Army and the Battle of Palmito Ranch down near Mexico was fought after Lee surrendered, and that was pretty much it.

Battle of Galveston Bay (first or second-I'm not sure)
However, during the Civil War, the Comanche pushed back the frontier and a number of forts were abandoned, among them Fort Fisher along the Brazos River near Whitney where I used to live. It was pushed back clear to Fort Parker, a Texas Ranger fort also along the Brazos in Waco, where the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame is today. Check the map. This is the middle of the state. The Rangers protected the settlers from the Comanche and the outlaws.
Juneteenth celebration 2012 at Ashton Villa

Then the war was over. It took a while for word of it to reach Texas. The Emancipation Proclamation was read to slaves in Texas for the first time at Ashton Villa on Galveston Island on June 19, 1865. Juneteenth is still celebrated in Galveston by reading the proclamation at Ashton Villa, then everybody walks over to the park for a party. The local folks want to make it a national holiday... at least on the level of Flag Day.

Reconstruction began with Lincoln's gentle version at first, but the Radical Republicans, as they called themselves, had trouble with wholesale forgiveness and they truly wanted to make the freed slaves equals. A lot of them did, anyway. And when they took over Congress in 1866, they sent in troops to occupy the rebel states and made enemies. It was kind of a cold war.

In Texas, which suffered somewhat less than the other states because there was less destruction of property than in, say, Atlanta, Edmund J. Davis was elected governor under a new, Reconstruction-created constitution. He was an ally of Sam Houston's in the secession argument and left the state after they lost the argument, joining the Union Army and creating a regiment of Unionist Texans. He truly believed in the cause of emancipation. But he may not have been the most politic of men. He made a lot of enemies.

He disbanded the Texas Rangers, which made him a lot of enemies right there, and created the Texas State Police. A lot of the State Police were former Rangers and became Rangers again after the State Police were disbanded and the Rangers reconstituted. The chief of the state police embezzled a ton of money (especially for that era) and a lot of the crimes they enforced were white-on-black crimes, which did not endear them to the unregenerate Confederates.

Old Stone Capitol
Texas was readmitted to the Union in 1870, the last state except for Georgia to be officially admitted, and Georgia was only three or four months behind. It operated under that Reconstruction constitution, which went into force in 1869, until the election of 1873 when Ed Davis lost in an election that abounded with irregularities. Because of all those irregularities, he barricaded himself in the capitol (not the current state capitol, but the one they had before, called the Old Stone Capitol. I think it burned down, but anyway, it was replaced.) and folks broke out ladders to climb in the windows.

Davis appealed to President U.S. Grant for troops to enforce his governorship and when Grant refused, Davis grudgingly evacuated the building. But he locked the governor's office and took the key with him. They had to break the door down with an ax to get in. (I just love these peculiarities and perversities of history. :) Which is why I keep sticking them in when I'm trying to get through this quickly.) (Oh, and the current capitol building of Texas? It's pink. Because it's built out of Texas granite and all Texas granite is pink. (The rock jetties on Galveston are Texas granite. They're pink too.) When it's weathered, it looks a little more tan, but really, it's pink.)
Texas State Capitol, today

Okay, so Davis is out. The federal troops are out. Texans don't like the constitution they feel was forced on them during Reconstruction, so they convene a new constitutional convention to write another one. They didn't like Davis or the way he governed. They didn't like the government telling them what to do. The way they figured it, the best way to keep control of those interfering government folks was to make as many of them as they could get elected regularly, keep the legislature from meeting very often, and take as much of the power away from the governor as they could. So that's what they did.

The Texas State Constitution is the third longest state constitution, shorter only than that of Alabama (which has been amended 800 times) and California (which has to deal with that citizen initiative thing). It is a prescriptive constitution, meaning that there is no "Necessary and Proper" clause as in the U.S. Constitution. Only the things prescribed in the constitution are allowed. It has been amended over 475 times (that was the count in 2010, and I know we've passed up to a dozen amendments in pretty much every election since) (Including just county elections--the state tends to tack them on), sometimes a specific amendment for a specific county.

The governor is one of the weakest in the country, many of his powers divided with the lieutenant governor, because the folks who wrote the current constitution hated Ed Davis and didn't want any governor forever after to have the kinds of powers that Davis had. So, the lieutenant governor runs independently of the governor and appoints nearly as many positions on the various executive boards as the governor does. These boards do a lot of the running of the state. The lieutenant governor is the presiding officer of the Texas Senate, has that as a power base as well. He or she is not always of the same party as the governor. Remember, they do not run as a "set."

Rick Perry, left, with David Dewhurst
The current LG, David Dewhurst, is a bit of a nonentity and not considered terribly effective, while Governor Rick Perry has been in office longer than any other governor, ever. His longevity has given him more power than governors have usually had. But when George W. Bush was governor, he had a powerful Democrat as his lieutenant governor and believe me, Bob Bullock exercised that power. Personalities still do count.

Besides requiring the election of everybody from constables, justices of the peace, judges at every level (including the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals--which are each the supreme court of the state, one for civil cases only and one for criminal cases only), county tax assessor-collectors, to Texas Education Board members and Railroad Commissioners, those government-averse Texans of 1873-ish decided that the less the legislature met, the less it could mess things up. So the Texas Legislature meets only once every two years, beginning in January of the year following the election, for 140 days, usually ending in late May or early June, depending on when, exactly, they started. Legislators and state senators are elected in November, every two years, and in January, they convene in Austin. The governor can call special sessions for specific purposes, and those special sessions last for only 30 days. In 2013, Governor Perry called two special sessions in a row immediately after the regular session ended and totally pissed off the legislators. They wanted to go home and get back to business. Because the Texas Legislature is so very part time, it tends to be popular with lawyers, insurance agents, doctors, homemakers, and others among the self-employed. But even they eventually need to go back to work.

This is definitely just a skim-over of how government (at the state level) works and how it got this way. I used to teach this stuff at the college level and it took a good quarter of the semester to cover just the historical stuff. It's probably not something you will need to know except for deep background, but it's a good stuff to be aware of. Texas doesn't work like other places. I don't know any other state in which the legislature meets only once every other year. Or that has quite so many elected officials. Or where neither the city nor the county has anything to do with the schools.

Just remember, if you're a school kid researching Texas government--leave now and go find a more official site. Or if you're a writer working on a murder mystery about corruption in big oil, leave now and go look up the Texas Railroad Commission. Because this isn't official, nor is it complete.

This is already a long post, so I'm going to do another blog-post on how things are organized at the local level. I've lived in a county with a population of 30,000, in a county with a population of 3,000, and now in a county with a population of almost 300,000 (2010 census), right next to the most populous county in the state. But county organization is mostly the same, unless there is a constitutional amendment for that county. (Hill County had one, reorganizing its courts.)

Now, go forth and research.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

South Texas Plains (Texas for Writers #8)

So. In this blogpost, I am going to write about the South Texas Plains.  You will see that the region is divided into the Central South Texas Plains, the Upper Rio Grande and the Lower Rio Grande. I will be honest with you. I've never lived in this part of Texas. My dad grew up in San Antonio, and the fella had an uncle who lived in Laredo a decade or so, but other than that, I've mostly just driven across it a couple of times, and that was a while ago. So I'm going to have to do a fair bit of research on this. Which is kind of the point. The information is there, if one will go out and look for it.

Daddy was an army brat--his dad joined up for WWI and retired before I was born. (I am a Texan. My father was Daddy till the day he died, and my mother's father was too. The fella is Grandaddy, as is his father. Our children get away with calling him Dad.) His family lived in San Antonio in what our Latino friends called "the bad part of town" while I was growing up. The house was just down the street from the old Mission Ballpark. It
South Texas plains does not include coastal counties
was across the street from a city park and playground through which the San Antonio River ran. That part of the river isn't dammed up and restrained like the part that runs through downtown and the Riverwalk. When I was little, the Riverwalk was pretty barren. No restaurants with outdoor dining or water taxi tours. That started up mostly when Hemisfair came to San Antonio, when I was just starting high school. (Yes, I am dating myself here.) The river in the park sometimes flooded, and sometimes it was just puddles and we would go play in the river bed. 

When my Aunt Mary was getting married in the big old house, they sent all the uncles (and Daddy) out with all the kids (mostly just me and my siblings) to tour all the missions in San Antonio. There are a lot of missions in San Antonio. We did the San Jose Mission (San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo), Concepcion Mission (Nuestra Senora de la Purisma Concepcion de Acuna), San Juan Capistrano (yes, there is one in Texas, too), San Francisco de la Espada, and we may have gone to the Alamo as well (AKA Mission San Antonio de Valero). Mostly I remember chasing a lot of peacocks and noticing that all the giant blue agave plants on the mission grounds--the plants that
tequila is made from--had initials carved in their thick leaves. I tried carving my own, using one of the needles pulled off the end of the leaf. These plants were huge--five feet or more tall and as big around.  Much bigger than the ones they harvest for tequila...

San Antonio is the second biggest city in Texas and one of the fastest growing in the country. It sprawls in all directions, like most Texas cities. It has some very wealthy and beautiful sections and some dirt poor sections like the one that grew up around my grandparents' house. San Antonio streets have their issues. Because the San Antonio climate tends to be dry, there are a lot of low water crossings--places that fill up with water when it rains. But since it doesn't rain often, they don't get around to building bridges. Which means that when San Antonio has one of its frequent flash floods--because when it rains in the area, it tends to rain really hard and then quit--they tend to have a lot of people get swept away in the flash floods because the drivers drive around the railroad-crossing-type barricades.  It's getting better than it used to be, but they still lose a few teenagers every year.

Southeast of San Antonio, toward Floresville
You can drive southwest-ish from San Antonio and reach Laredo on the border in a couple of hours. You can drive southeast and get to Corpus Christi in only a few more. San Antonio is in Bexar County and Laredo is in Webb. Corpus is in Nueces County, but it's on the coast, so it's rightfully part of the coastal geographic region. Just as East Texas is more than the Piney Woods, South Texas is more than just the Plains. East Texas is everything east of Interstate 45. South Texas is pretty much everything south of San Antonio. You will note in those diagrams up above that in both of them, South Texas angles southerly down toward San Patricio and Aransas (pronounced a-RAN-zuss, if you'll recall) Counties. So you can't draw a line along Interstate 10, which connects San Antonio and Houston, and say everything south of that is South Texas. Because it angles. The Houston TV stations like to talk about Houston being in South Texas, but it isn't. It's sort of in South East Texas. Sort of. But San Antonio is definitely considered the gateway to South Texas.

San Antonio is the "big city" in South Texas. Laredo is the second largest city at 244,000+ population if we're discounting the row of coastal counties. If we kick all of those out, we're left with McAllen (over 100,000), Edinburg (81,000) and smaller towns. (Of course, kicking the coastal counties out only deprives us of the large cities of Corpus Christi and Brownsville...) There are plenty of small towns in South Texas, and plenty of ranches. Just remember, this is south Texas. Close to the Mexican border.

As you go north along the Rio Grande, you get into more and more hills and bluffs and gulleys, but before it gets very hilly, you're in the Hill Country, which does bump up against the border. Mostly, South Texas is plains. It's more of the flat countryside. In the spring, you will see wildflowers. Otherwise, it's pretty much just mesquite trees, prickly pears and more or less grass, depending on how dry the year has been. A lot of the time, the grass is the same color as the dirt, so you can't necessarily tell how dry it's been. I remember being very bored by the landscape, driving both to Laredo and to Corpus. And I don't remember the mesquite trees being as big as the ones in this picture. I remember them being about as tall as the prickly pears. This scene is pretty typical however all across the state. I've seen places like it in the Panhandle and all the way south to the Rio Grande.

Mesquites are nasty trees. I mean, if they're all you have for shade, then okay. But they're bad in pastures because they suck up all the available moisture and make the grass more scarce. The cows will eat the mesquite beans, if they have nothing else, and then poop out the seeds and help spread the trees. I think this may be why mesquite has become so popular as wood for barbecue. Because the ranchers want them out of their fields, and if somebody will buy the wood, even better. But it does make good barbecue... (Mesquite trees also have thorns. Mesquites are a large part of the reason for chaps.)

Cows will eat a lot of things if they're hungry enough. My mother tells stories about helping to burn the spines off prickly pear pads when she was a little girl so the cows wouldn't get them in their mouths. She and her sisters would put the prickly pears on sticks and hold them over the fire--just like they did back in the 1700s when the Spanish and the Mexicans held Texas. Nowdays, they use a sort of flamethrower. The old Spanish word for burning off the spines is chamuscando. Which apparently means "burning spines off prickly pears."

If you don't burn the spines off the prickly pears, the cows will eat them anyway and get the spines all in their mouths--and prickly pears? They have big spines arranged sporadically like polka-dots across both sides, and surrounding those big spines? There are hundreds of tiny, hairlike spines that are murder to get out. (Yes, I have been stabbed by prickly pears. Both kinds of spines.) And they hurt like the devil when you get punctured with them. The poor cows don't get much good out of eating the pears--they're mostly fiber and moisture, but they fill their bellies. And if the spines don't get burned off, the cows will be walking around with their mouths all swollen up and sore from the spines stuck in there. Poor cows.

Panhandle Prickly Pear
The South Texas Plains are dry. They're flat. But they're not desert. Quite. There's lots of brush and mesquite trees and grass. The plains support lots and lots of deer, hogs, and cattle. Turkeys and quail, javelina--which are different from feral hogs. The mountain desert in New Mexico and Arizona will support quite a bit of wildlife too, but not as much as South Texas. It's a brushy dry. And there are still a lot of wildflowers. Even prickly pears bloom. You ever see one?

I took this picture. It's a Panhandle prickly pear, but they all look the same whatever part of Texas they're in. Note the spines across the pads? Every one of those big ones is surrounded by a host of those tiny ones. They're used in Mexican cooking. The pads as well as the fruit. Nopalitos are prickly pear, if you ever happen to see them in a grocery store or restaurant menu. And yes, they do take the spines off before cooking them. Or even bringing them into the store. (In fact, I think they're peeled...)

This is the part of the state that used to have uranium mines--mostly surface mines. It's the part of the state that's getting torn up by fracking. The big trucks are tearing up the roads, along with the water-that-catches-fire stuff you get elsewhere. The locals are not happy, but the state powers-that-be don't listen too well. (sigh.)

Mission San Jose in San Antonio
I feel like I should be telling you more, but I'm not sure what to say. The terrain really does look pretty much the same all across the region. There are hills and gulleys, so individual places are different, but overall... it's brushy plains. I've given you all the anecdotes I can think of. Um--no, I'll save that one for when I'm talking about Texas politics.

Anything else I come up with would be from things I've researched. And that's your job. Look at a map. Look at the images that Google pulls up. Read the Wikipedia entry on South Texas. At the very least. I would recommend just putting South Texas as your search term for images, because when I put in South Texas Plains, I got a lot of Panhandle images. Not a whole lot different, to be honest, because the plains in South Texas are just the southernmost point of the Great Plains that start up in Canada. Think of it as plains rather than desert, and you'll probably get closer to right.

Not trying to be comprehensive or definitive. Just trying to get folks to think about what Texas really is, and maybe point a few writers in the right direction for research. Hope I'm helpful.