The great Texas meteorologist Isaac Klein reportedly said back in the ’30s that Texas is a land of eternal drought, interrupted occasionally by biblical floods.
Here is the way one writer describe one of these twenty-year droughts: “It crept up out of Mexico touching first along the brackish Pecos River, and spreading then in all directions. A cancerous blight burning a scar on the land.”
Just another dry spell, men said at first. Ranchers watched waterholes recede into brown puddles of mud that their livestock wouldn’t touch. They watched the rank weeds shrivel as the west winds relentlessly sought them out and smothered them with its hot breath. They watch the grass slowly lose its green, then curl up and fire up like dying corn stocks. Men grumbled.
But you learn to live with dry spells if you live in west Texas. There are more dry spells than wet ones. No one expected another drought like that of ’33 and the really big dries, like 1928, came once in a lifetime. Why worry they said. It would rain this fall. It always has.
But it didn’t and many a boy would become a man before the land became green again. This is how Elmer Kelton’s superb Texas novel, “The Time It Never Rained,” begins. The 1950s drought is a major character asserting itself, maliciously and unceasingly, throughout the book.
The central character is Charlie Flag, a tough old rancher from a bygone era who refuses to take government aid to survive the drought. He says, “There was a time when we looked up to Uncle Sam. He was something to be proud of and respect, but now he has turned into some kind of muddled-brained Sugar Daddy giving out goodies right and left in hopes that everybody is going to love him.”
Flag takes you to a time when charity was thought to be an unkind word. He warns against ranchers getting too comfortable with government aid by saying, “It divides us into selfish little groups, snarlin’ and snappin’ at each other like hungry dogs, grabbing for what we can get and to hell with everybody else. We beg and fight and prostitute ourselves. We take charity and we give it a sweeter name.”
He concludes that when a rancher takes government help, as well intentioned as the government is and as deserving as the rancher might be, he’s given up something he can never get back. He has given up a little bit of self-respect and little of his pride he used to have in taking care of himself, by himself.
If you asked me to list the top ten Texas novels of all time, I could do it easily. Putting them in order, though, would be a challenge beyond me. But I can say for certain that somewhere in the Top 5 would be “The Time It Never Rained.”
Spend a few evenings with Charlie Flag and you will see the incomparable Texas spirit in its purest form. You will feel like you went out with your grandfather and checked all the fences, making sure they were horse high, pig tight and bull strong.
W.F Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell Ice Cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.