People often ask me how I came to love Texas literature so much. I tell them that my “Road to Damascus” moment occurred while reading one book. Well, actually it was just one story in one book. And if truth be told, it was really just one paragraph in that book that was responsible for my – let’s not say conversion, let’s just say, enlightenment.
I came across the book when I was in high school. My English teacher, Doris Jenkins, God bless her, pressed the book into my hand and said, “I bet you’ll like this. Give it a try.”
The book was by some guy named Larry McMurtry and it was called “In a Narrow Grave.” Strange title I thought. The subtitle was “Essays on Texas.” For a 17-year-old, that was a poor selling point. Essays just sounded like more school. As I deeply admired Ms. Jenkins, I was willing to thumb through it as a courtesy. I thought I would start toward the end to pick up some interesting details that could form an intelligent response to the book, and then give it back to her the next day.
While riffing through, a certain sentence caught my eye: “I saw Uncle Johnny’s Ranch for the first time when I was in my early teens and went there for a reunion.” Well, those words unexpectedly pulled me in, because I had had similar experiences at that age. I had visited my Uncle Bud’s cattle ranch in North Texas in the summers of my teenage years. So I read on.
McMurtry wrote of Uncle Johnny’s fascinating and often tragic life as a rancher. He had an inordinate number of accidents. He broke many bones, but always, against all odds, recovered and continued ranching. He was like ranchers I knew – resilient beyond reason – like Percy Hunter of the Mills-Bennett Ranch or Bill McBride of the King Ranch, men who, to my teenage imagination, could have ridden out of the pages of a Zane Grey novel.
Then I came to this paragraph concerning Uncle Johnny’s last family reunion. He had attended many of them over the years, but all the relatives there knew this was likely the last time they would see him. As he was leaving, they walked him down to his Cadillac.
“Though he was 75 and dying, there was something boyish about him as he stood taking leave of the family. He stood in the frame that had always contained him, the great circular frame of the plains, with the wind blowing the grey hair at his temples and the whole of Llano Estacado at his back. When he smiled at the children who were near, the pain left his face for a second, and he gave them the look that had always been his greatest appeal – the look of a man who saw life to the last as a youth sees it, and who sees in any youth, all that he himself had been.”
It was that paragraph that fired in me a lifelong passion for Texas literature, both fiction and nonfiction. You see, until that time I never realized – maybe I was a little slow – but I never realized that great literature could be about your time and your people. It didn’t have to be about events of long ago and far away. Writers could chronicle and celebrate their own cultures in the here and now. Maybe that is what Ms. Jenkins hoped I would learn. Mission accomplished.
Let’s go back to Uncle Johnny’s goodbye:
“There were no words. They were not a wordy people… Uncle Johnny’s last young grin blended with his grimace as he began the painful task of fitting himself into the car. In a few minutes the Cadillac had disappeared behind the first brown ridge, and the family was left with its silence and the fading day.”