My slightly younger brother, JP and I have always counted ourselves fortunate that we got through primary school in the happy baby-boom years of the very early 1960ies, before a hitherto solid and well-established education system suddenly lost all confidence in itself and began whoring after strange gods, fads and theories. We both were taught the old phonics way, carefully sounding out the letters and the sounds, until… oh! There was that flash of understanding, at unraveling a new word, and another and another. We read confidently and omnivorously from the second grade on, and were only a little scarred from the infliction of the “New Math” on our otherwise happy little souls. It seemed like one semester I was memorizing the times tables and the “gozintas” (two gozinta four two times) and wrestling with very, very long division, and suddenly it was all about prime numbers and sectors and points on a line, and what was all that in aid of?

I really would have rather gone on with word problems, thank you very much, rather than calculus for the elementary school set. It was at least useful, working out how much paint or carpet to cover an area, or how what time a train going so fast would get to the next city. Thanks to the “New Math” I wound up working out how to figure what was 70% off of $15,000 when I was forty-three. Got to love those educational fads. You spend the rest of your life making up for having them inflicted on you. Pippy’s elementary education was far more adversely affected; she caught the “whole word” reading thing in the neck. While she did successfully negotiate the second grade and learned to read on schedule, she never enjoyed it as much, or read as much as JP and I did routinely.

Our baby brother, Sander had the worst time of all. Mom racked up conference after conference with his second grade-teacher over his failure to advance, and generally unsatisfactory class behavior. Mom was a pretty experienced and hard-bitten Mom by the time she rotated four children through the same set of public schools. She had cured many of our teachers of their initial habit of carving off great dripping slabs of condescension to parents in a nominally blue-collar working class suburb by tactfully making it clear that both she and Dad were college graduates also. Sander’s second-grade teacher remained pretty much a burr under Mom’s parental saddle, especially since he was struggling desperately and unhappily in her classroom. It never got so bad that he was wetting the bed, or developing convenient illnesses, but he was adamant about not enjoying school… or at least the second-grade class.

We began to wonder if the difference was in the teacher; she seemed to be very cold, and judgmental. He had done very well the year before, an active, charming seven-year old, the youngest child in a family of mostly adults, who were devoted to books and education. Later on, JP would suggest that Sander was thought to be so bright by his teachers because he would constantly uncork four-syllable words that he picked up from us. It really wasn’t the way, then, to blame a teacher entirely for a problem, but this was our baby brother, our real doll-baby and pet, but everything his teacher tagged on him was always his fault. First his teacher adamantly insisted he was a discipline problem, then that he was hyper-active and out to be in a special class… and then took the cake by suggesting that he was mentally retarded. Mom had gone to a great deal of trouble to get him after-school tutoring, and she blew her stack at that. Whatever was his problem, he was not retarded, and she was shocked that an experienced teacher would even make that unsupported diagnosis.

About halfway through the semester, Mom noticed that Sander rubbed his eyes a lot, and they always looked a bit reddened and crusty at the end of the school day. Eye problems? I was nearsighted, as blind as a bat without glasses, which was about the first thing that all my teachers knew about me, and I had never had that sort of trouble. Mom took him to the ophthalmologist; it turned out he was quite the opposite from me— he was far-sighted, to the point where it was acutely uncomfortable to concentrate for long on the written word. Once he was fitted with glasses, all the problems— except for the basic personality clash with the unsympathetic teacher— melted away.

Mom added her scalp, metaphorically speaking, to her collection, right next to the scalp of my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Range, who was only called Mrs. De-Range out of her hearing. Her students all knew very well that she was a nutcase almost immediately, beating the school administration to that knowledge by several years. Late middle age had not been kind to Mrs. De-Range; in fact it had been quite brutally unkind. She was a tall, gawky Olive Oyle figure of a woman, with faded reddish hair scraped back in a meager old-fashioned bun, long, yellowish teeth like a horses’ and a figure like a lumpy and half-empty sack suspended from narrow, coat-hanger shoulders. As a teacher she was fairly competent in the old-fashioned way; a strict grammarian and exacting with punctuation, wielding a slashing red pen with little regard for our delicate self-esteem. She expected us to keep a special folder of all our classroom and homework assignments, to methodically log them in by their assignment number, make a note of the grade received, and keep them when she returned them to us, all splattered over with red ink corrections. This was eccentric, but bearable; as teacher requirements went, not much variance from the normal.

What wasn’t normal were the sudden rages. In the middle of a pleasant fall day, doors and windows open for air, and the distant pleasant sound of a ball game going on, and maybe the drill team counting cadence drifting in from the athletic fields, when we were engaged in a classroom assignment, nothing but the occasional rustle of a turning page, the scritch of pencil on paper, someone sniffing or shifting in their chair… Mrs. Range would suddenly slam a book on her desk and go into a screeching tirade about how noisy we were, and how she wouldn’t put up with this for a minute, and what badly-behaved, unteachable little horrors we all were. We would sit, cowering under the unprovoked blast of irrational anger, our eyes sliding a little to the right or left, wondering just what had set her off this time. What noise was it she was hearing? Her classroom was always quiet. Even the bad kids were afraid, spooked by her sudden spirals of irrational fury.

I have no idea how much of this was communicated to our parents, or if any of them would have believed it. But I am pretty sure that Mom had Mrs. Range’s number, especially after the legendary teacher’s conference— called at the request of Mrs. Range. I had too many missing or incomplete assignments, and it seemed that she took a vicious pleasure in showing Mom and I all the empty boxes in the grade-book against my name, at the after-school conference in the empty classroom. This was almost as baffling as the sudden rages, because I was fairly conscientious—a little absentminded, sometimes, a little too prone to daydream— but to miss nearly a third of the assignments so far? “Show your mother your class-work folder,” commanded Mrs. Range, and I brought it out, and opened it on the desk; my own list of the assignments, logged in as they were returned to me, the corrected and graded assignments all filed neatly in order.

All of them were there, every one of the ones that were blanks in Mrs. Range’s book, corrected and graded in her own hand, all checked off on my list. Mom looked at my folder, at Mrs. Range’s own assignment record, and said in a voice of velvet gentleness “I believe we have solved the problem of the missing assignments. Thank you for your time, Mrs. Range— will there be anything more?” Mrs. Range’s face was unreadable. There was the faintest gleam from the steel gauntlet, the tiniest clink audible, when Mom threw it down, adding “Of course, we will pay… special attention… to the completing of all Celia’s class and homework assignments after today. Good grades are very important to us.” Mom took up her car keys, “Coming, Celia?” Out in the parking lot, she fumed. “Horrible woman… and such a snob. She went to a perfectly good teacher’s school in Texas, but she groveled so when I told her that your father and I went to Occidental… it was embarrassing. And so strange to have missed so many of your assignments… good thing she had you keep them.” “Yes,” I said, “A very good thing.” I was still trying to puzzle the look of Mrs. Range’s face; bafflement, fury frustrated of an intended target.

What on earth had she been thinking, what sort of mental lapse was this? I would never know, but two years later, after I had moved on to High School, JP came home with the intelligence that Mrs. Range had truly and ultimately lost it, melting down in the middle of a tirade to a class of terrified students, from which— according to JP—she had been removed by men in nice white coats armed with a strait-jacket, drugs and a large net. The school administration may have been shocked, but I am confident that none of her former students were surprised in the least.

In an upscale neighborhood halfway between Redwood House, and Granny Jessie and Grandpa Jim’s tiny white house on South Lotus, there was a magical place tucked into a dell of huge native California live oak trees. Looking back, we— my brother JP, my sister Pippy and I— seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time there, in those lovely leisurely days when mothers were expected to stay at home with children, but not to spend every waking minute ferrying them frenetically from scheduled amusements, playdates and lessons, with barely time for a snatched meal from drive-through or take-out.

Compared to our peers in the 1960ies, Mom may have been a bit of an overachiever, with Cotillion on alternate Tuesdays, Girl Scouts on Wednesday, and Confirmation on Thursdays. That was during the school year, though… in the summers, we three had swimming lessons at the house of a woman in La Crescenta who had, like her mother before her— been on the American Olympic swim team in their respective days. Mom sat with half a dozen other mothers on the deck in back of the house, while the two women dragooned a dozen tadpole children through their paces: diving, back-stroking, holding our breath and diving down to the bottom of the nearly Olympic-sized pool, treading water. It must have been rather boring for her, I imagine. Mom must have enjoyed the time during our lessons in nature appreciation at Descanso Gardens more, because she could walk around the acres of Manchester Boddy’s landscaped estate.

He was a newspaper publisher in the 1920ies and 1930ies, an aesthete with a mad passion for camellias, and a lovely chunk of property, close against the hillside and thickly grown with huge native oak trees. His house was still there, back against the first rise of the hillside, a large, graceful white house with the hollow and institutional feel common to a mansion that has once been a great home, but now full of empty, or nearly empty rooms, given over to official enterprise. Owing to a number of business reversals, the estate and garden wound up being in the public domain, but unlike the house, the gardens were burgeoning, enchantingly full of life… and flowers.

As children, we loved the camellia woods, but Mom loved the rose garden, two acres of roses, Grandpa Jim’s tiny formal garden expanded exponentially. Like his garden, it was for roses and roses alone, bare thorny stems rising up out of carefully tended weedless ground, planted in curving beds, and straight disciplined lines, trained over arbors and pergolas, every selected bush lovingly tended and encouraged to bloom, bloom and bloom again, encouraged with every atom of the gardeners’ art and skill with water, and application of clippers and fertilizer. Under the hot spring sun, the scent of acres of roses in bloom was intoxicating… but the rose garden was baked and bleached by sun, shimmering off the gravel paths, and we preferred the cool green shades of the camellia grove and the pond with the ducks. The gardens seem to have been much improved upon, since we were there so often, and even since I took my daughter in the early 1980ies, perhaps the large artificial pond, just inside the old main entrance is no longer there, or in the same form, but the gardens that I remember was threaded with artificial, but skillfully built watercourses, and the main catch-pond was the home of a flock of tame ducks. There was a coin-op dispenser that for a nickel, administered a handful of cracked corn— so very clever of the garden administrators to charge the public for expense of feeding the tame resident waterfowl. By afternoon, the ducks would be lethargic, sleeping off their orgies of gobbling corn from the hands of small children, but in the morning hours, when the garden had just opened, they would throng hopefully towards anyone approaching the main pond, and the ever-bountiful coin-op dispenser.

On the other side of the pond there was an oval lawn, shaded by towering oak trees, and groves of shrub camellias, acres of cool and misty green paths planted with Manchester Boddy’s pride and joy, all dark glossy green leaves and pale pink and white or magenta flowers. We loved the camellia groves, and the tangle of green paths threading the dell: we knew the chaparral hillsides, and the open, sun-blasted acres of rose garden— it was what we lived our lives amongst— but acres of cool green woods, and stone-trimmed water-courses, that was something rare and exotic and special.

Bearing to the left of the duck pond was another bit of exoticism; along about in the late 1960ies, they built a Japanese tea-house, a lovely little tile-roofed pavilion, led to by a series of bridges, walkways and a carefully clipped landscape of bamboo and azaleas. The watercourse was extended into a lagoon around the tea-house foundations, and stocked with fat golden carp. The teahouse served tea, of course, courtesy of a concessionaire who was in the good graces of the Japanese-American organization who had funded construction. The tea was clear greenish-golden liquid, served in handle-less cups and accompanied with fine-grained, soy-salt tasting crackers. We sipped it, looking out into the serene green depths of the camellias and the sheltering oaks, and thought there was nothing more restful, nothing more peaceful in all of the world, than Manchester Boddys’ wonderful gardens.

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titles(Another half chapter of the work in progress. Sophia Brewer has escaped from her sociopathic brother, who has coldly contrived to drive her — if not insane — then to confinement in the local asylum. She is being helped by the family of Agnes Teague, the Brewer household maid of all work … and the Teagues have a plan.)

Walk Away and Never Look Back

Of course, the nightmare came that night – the horrific dream where Richard struck her and she cowered under the blows, relieving the feeling of suffocation under the weight of something heavy pressing her down, down, down, until she couldn’t breathe, the pain of that weight forcing her legs apart, a new stabbing and intimate pain that spun away as the opium took her down even further…
“Miss Sophia,” a tremulous voice breathed in her ear, and there was a hand on her shoulder, which she batted away until she realized it was only Agnes, and that she lay on a pallet on the floor of the tenement room where the Teagues lived. “Miss Sophia … y’r crying out… is it the nightmare again? O’ course it is. Wake up no – ye are safe with us, and soon to be far away, where he can no’ harm ye again…”
“I know,” Sophia gulped, still half-paralyzed by the ragged shadows of the dream. Her heart pounded so hard, she feared it would burst in her chest, and her shift seemed to be drenched in her own clammy sweat. “I am awake, Agnes. I am sorry that I have disturbed your own rest…”
“No,” Agnes demurred, “I sleep light, Miss Sophia – and easily. Dinna regret … an’ I am accustomed to being around folk with night terrors. Da an’ Declan, they both awake shouting, still. Go back to sleep, Miss Sophia.” Agnes’s voice sounded ever more musical, with the Irish lilt to it. “I can sing a lully-bye to ye, as Ma once did, if ye think that it would help.”
“Do not threaten me, Agnes,” Sophia was recovered enough to be humorous. “I have heard you try to sing – you cannot carry a tune in a bucket.”
“I know,” And at her side in the darkness, Agnes giggled. “I canno sing – it will be a cross to bear when I take the veil…”
“Agnes!” Sophia was diverted from contemplating her own miseries. “You are thinking of becoming a nun?”
“Aye,” Agnes replied, in tranquil confidence. “’Tis a thing I have felt a calling for … oh, the last year or so. Da an’ the boys, they think it a girlish thing, an’ a matter for teasing. But I take no mind. It will be so, an’ I will be guided. Just so are you guided, Miss Sophia – I have a sense of such things, y’see. But a bad dream as you had just now – there was something that Mrs. Garrett said to me. You cried out Mr. Richard’s name, crying no, no! just now, and it reminded me of what she said.”
“What did she say, Agnes?” Sophia now felt cold, the sweat-damp shift clammy against her skin. “And when?”
“When you had been carried upstairs, the evening of the day when Mr. Richard locked you in the strong-room.” Agnes ventured. “Mrs. Garrett and I – we came running from the back o’ the house. Miss Vining an’ Miss Phelps, they were there, too. When Mr. Richard went for Dr. Cotton, Miss Vining and Mrs. Garrett and I took off your clothing … soaked in blood, they were. Oh, Miss Sophia…” and Agnes’ arm tightened around Sophia in a comforting embrace. “I thought it so fortunate that you were not aware. Miss Phelps went quite faint, she were that distressed, but Miss Vining, she were very brave, an’ sent for Miss Phelps to bring hot water and cloths… bruised from head to toe ye were. We took off your dress an’ underthings … an’ that was when Mrs. Garrett said, straight out – that it looked as if you had been …” and Agnes’ voice dropped, hushed with embarrassment, “Interfered with … bruises, y’see. An’ bloody matter on your under-drawers an’ Miss Vining, she turned white an’ then red, an’ said that Mrs. Garrett should shut her mouth before speaking such vileness. Mrs. Garrett, she said straight out, she may ha’ been born at night, but it wasn’t last night, neither, an’ there were no man in the house save Mr. Richard. That were when Miss Vining said that such an evil-speaking woman ought to be sacked, an’ Mrs. Garrett said that she wouldn’t stay a minute longer in a house where such goings on were countenanced. That were when Mrs. Garrett gave her notice.” After a long moment, Agnes said, “I were not certain of what they meant, Miss Sophia. But when I asked Miss Vining later, she were angry. So I said nothing more. Was that the right thing, Miss Sophia?”
“Yes,” Sophia answered; sunk in misery and doubt, for she could not truly remember anything past a certain moment in that dreadful evening. But … something awful had happened to her, which her mind quailed from contemplating, even acknowledging. “I truly cannot recall anything, after my brother forced the syrup of opium down my throat. My brother beat me savagely, all but murdered me. That is enough for me to know, Agnes. I had always assumed that he loved and wished the best for me … just as your brothers do for you. It is a hard burden to bear – knowing that his actions demonstrated otherwise. You are fortunate in your family, Agnes – if not in those worldly and material things. I shall try to go to sleep now.”
“You do that, Miss Sophia,” Agnes embraced her again, which Sophia found comfort in; but why were her true friends now revealed as the humble and down-trodden, when everyone else had turned away? How very complicated her life had become; perhaps it was a good thing to go away from Boston and start on it again, free from familial connections and interference.

Still, she could not sleep, for the tumult in her mind and heart: So much to consider and worry over – would she journey safely to Chicago? What refuge would she find there? If this slightly mysterious Mr. Harvey would not hire her, what would she do then? At her shoulder, Agnes breathed slow and regular, deep in slumber. At last, Sophia slithered out from under the blankets on the pallet, and from Agnes’s light embrace. The girl obviously slept sounder than she had said, or else she was tired. There was a faint light in the room, on the other side of the makeshift curtain which sheltered the pallet. By that light, Sophia rose, changed her shift for a clean one and resumed the dress that she had worn that day – and which she would wear when Declan came for her – and that, by the distant sound of the bells from the old North Church – would not be very much longer. She wrapped the coarse countrywoman’s woolen shawl around her, for the night was still chill, from the wind blowing off the harbor, and the windows of the Teague tenement apartment leaked all the way around. She may as well sit by the fire which warmed the small place. She stepped around the edge of the curtain, and saw that Tim Teague had installed himself in his armchair – or perhaps he had never abandoned it, after allowing it to Sophia for a short while.
“Ye canna sleep, I see,” he said, as she stepped around the curtain. He was awake, his old eyes gleaming in the slight firelight. What an odd conversation; she may as well indulge him, for he was kindly and his daughter was comforting, and after all – he remembered her father.
“No, I cannot,” She replied, settling on the little three-legged stool which Agnes had sat upon the night before. The fire had had burned down very low – there was very little warmth in it at all. “I am setting out on a long journey, Mr. Teague, and there are things which I cannot stop thinking of …”
“Tim … call me Old Tim,” he answered readily, grinning as she answered,
“I cannot be so familiar, Mr. Teague. You are very much my senior in age, and it is just not proper … even if you were a servant. My mother was always very particular about courtesy and respect.”
“So was your father, if I remember,” Tim Teague acknowledged. “He had such a way with him to all.”
“I did not know him, and you did,” Sophia asked, on impulse and felt suddenly shy. “He was killed about the time that I was born, so I never knew him at all. All I know is what my mother and Great-aunt Minnie said of him … and they knew him only as family. Not as a man – a soldier – would.”
“The Major,” Tim Teague settled with a reminiscent sigh deeper into his battered armchair. Sophia hugged her knees to her chest, like a small child and listened hungry for every word.
“He was not what you would think of when you think of a hero,” Tim Teague began. “No’ at first. He was a quiet man, soft-spoken … sometimes I think he held his sword in leading a charge as if he were surprised to find such a thing in his hand. He did not give orders as if he were giving orders. He spoke as if asking a favor, but such was his manner an’ intent that … men obeyed on th’ instant. He were never familiar, as if he were seeking to ingratiate wi’ us, but always courteous … an’ he had a notion always of when someone told him a lie. Which was a recommendation if you came up before him on charges.”
“He had trained early in law,” Sophia said, and Tim Teague grinned again, obviously relishing the memory.
“An’ that was my good fortune, I tell ye, Miss Sophia. It was some small matter … th’ provost-sergeant – an evil man! – he told a lie about me. An’ so I were brought up before the Major. He, bless the man, saw how it were a lie wi’ a shrewd question ‘r two, an’ I had my liberty at once. He was always,” and Tim Teague’s eyes were remote, as if looking into the far distance beyond the tiny room in an upper-floor tenement in North Town, back to a world of blue uniforms, banners floating above and before them, and grey clouds of rebel gun powder smoke over a hard-held position, “an officer we could trust, y’ see. He were a good ‘un …”
Sophia rested her chin on her knees, and listened intent, as old Tim recalled her father in memory, a well that she could only dip into this once. She thought that she had a better picture of him than she had ever gleaned from her mother, whose memories of Richard Brewer were hazed by a veil of bridal silk.
After a time, Tim Teague’s reminiscences went wandering – as Great-Aunt Minnie’s were also wont to do; Sophia listened, lulled by the musical bent of his speech – why was it that it sounded to her almost like poetry? He talked of how he had departed starving Ireland as a young man, the misery of an immigrant ship – how he had finished up in Boston, working as a laborer on the docks, how he had met and married the mother of his children. That was before the war came, and he had enlisted … Sophia wondered if she had at least dozed a little, for she wakened with a bit of a start. Tim Teague was patting her shoulder, under the woolen shawl.
“Close the door and walk away. Walk away, niver looking back. Do ye no good, cailín daor. There’s nothing good for you, remaining. Na deamhain – demons will haunt ye anyway, so don’t give them a chance to get their claws into you any deeper. Faugh a Ballagh! – That was our battle shout. ‘Clear the Way!’ for the 28th … We marched in the Grand Review, ye know. But for me, there were a stone in m’ heart an’ demons haunting m’ soul for a’ that I had seen. The Major was no’ with us. He should ha’ been, but f’r a damn dirty sniper at Petersburg …”
There came a quiet tap on the door to the room in which they sat, and a mumble of a voice whose words Sophia could not quite catch. Tim Teague lifted his head, alert as an elderly hound. “Ah … ‘tis Mendelson. Ye had best ready yourself, cailín daor. Declan will be by wi’ the wagon, any moment now. Remember what I said – close the door, an’ walk away, niver look back.”

(This is a slightly reworked piece I did for a local real estate blog, which alas seems to have gone dormant – enjoy! CH)

For much of the 19th century and into the early Twentieth, it was a popular San Antonio custom. Various of the public squares, notably Military Plaza and Market Square were the domain of the Chili Queens who established a custom of setting up tables and benches along the edges of the squares, in the early evening and selling chili-by-the-bowl to all comers. They would bring huge kettles of chili which they had made over their own home cook-fire during the day, and keep it warm through the evening and into the wee hours over an open fire. The chili vendors would entice customers to their own particular stands by hiring musicians to entertain diners. There are some splendid descriptions of how marvelous this would have appeared – lantern and starlight shining down on the tables, gleaming on glass soda bottles, while the scent of the chili and the mesquite smoke from the fires which kept it warm hung on the night air. (I used this scene several times in Lone Star Sons, and in Adelsverein – The Sowing.) During South Texas summers before the invention of air conditioning, this likely would have been about the most comfortable dining venue for working men, for those out for an evening of gambling and drinking in the various saloons … and in later decades, for those visiting from the North or the East, desirous of absorbing a little exotic local color.

Historic San Antonio Main Plaza, with San Francisco Church

Historic San Antonio Main Plaza, with San Francisco Church

Chili was a very local delicacy in those years. Texans took readily to a venison or beef stew highly spiced with local chili peppers (with or without beans, with or without tomatoes), especially in the borderlands. But it was also a seasonal dish – generally only served in the spring and summer when the fresh peppers ripened and were available in the market. Air-dried whole chilies were available, of course – but they just didn’t provide the same flavor-punch. There may have been many local gourmands who adored chili and wished to eat it year round, but only one of them did anything about it.

This was a German-American, Willie Gebhardt, who got his start in food entrepreneurship by owning a beer-garden and restaurant in New Braunfels in the 1890s. It’s often said among the Irish that there was an Irishman at the start of any interesting cultural, technological or scientific effort, but in Texas in the late 19th century this role most usually fell to a German. Willie Gebhardt, like many other local cooks, developed his own special recipe for chili, and served it often in season – but on the side, he began experimenting with a means of preserving the essential chili pepper flavor. Eventually he hit upon a means of soaking ancho chili peppers, garlic, oregano and cumin in a water-alcohol mixture, then grinding it into a stiff paste, which was dried under low heat. When dried, it was further ground into a powder using a coffee-grinder, and packed in air-tight glass bottles. It was immediately popular; Willie Gebhardt took out a patent, calling it Gebhardt’s Eagle Brand Chili Powder. By the turn of the century, he had opened a factory – patenting a number of machines to expedite the manufacture of chili powder, which became and still is insanely popular. Eventually his factory, under the direction of a brother-in-law branched out into providing ready-made canned chili, and other staple Tex-Mex foods. Since this cuisine was largely unknown outside of the southwest, Gebhardt’s company published a cook-book instructing American cooks how to use chili powder – the first nationally-distributed cook-book on Mexican food. The original recipe for Eagle Brand Chili Powder is still available, supposedly unchanged, although the company was sold to Beatrice Foods following on the death of Willie Gebhardt in 1956. (It’s available on Amazon – so is a facsimile of the original Gebhardt’s Mexican cookbook.)

Chapter 7 – Walk Away and Never Look Back

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titles (From one of the current works in progress – Previous chapter here  This will be an adventure about a proper young lady who winds up going west under … well, interesting circumstances.)

“Lock the door after us, Phelpsie,” Sophia gasped. “And if Richard comes here tonight, you don’t know where I am. You haven’t seen us at all. Tell Aunt Minnie that I am well only when she is better … goodbye, Phelpsie – don’t open the door for anyone tonight!”

“I won’t,” Phelpsie gabbled, distraught, and Sophia thought that Phelpsie – aghast at the thought of having to face an angry Richard alone – for a moment was about to beg them all to stay. But the door opened in Declan’s strong hand and closed with a thud after them, and with some distant sense of relief, Sophia heard the sound of the lock falling to. Dark had fallen entirely now, save for only a pale pink smear in the western sky.

            “Where are we going?” Sophie struggled for breath and against her own weariness; Declan went ahead, a strong wide-shouldered man, her carpetbag in one hand, his stout watchman’s cudgel swinging in the other, as they hurried up Beacon Hill in the direction of the golden dome of the state house, still gleaming faintly in the last light of day. Agnes had her arm around Sophia’s waist – and unexpectedly strong arm from her short lifetime of hard work. Sophia was grateful for the support, and that they were heading in the opposite direction of the Brewer house and unlikely to encounter Richard in the tangle of narrow old streets in the waterfront district.

            “To our home,” Agnes replied. “See … Declan an’ I, we’ve an idea to help you escape for good…”

“If you have the mettle for it, see,” Declan threw over his shoulder as he hurried ahead. “But ‘t would mean leaving Boston, so it would, Miss Brewer.”

“I’d go out to the frontier and beyond, among all the wild Indians,” Sophia answered, without thinking. “As far as it would take that I’d never have to fear my brother again?”

“Out west?” Declan grinned over his shoulder. “Among the wild Indians and gunslingers? Our Seamus can’t get enough of those tales, but you might have your chance, Miss Brewer, with pluck and luck.”

“What do you mean?” Sophia gasped; she felt as if she were being swept along by an irresistible tide. Now they had left the lights of Beacon Street, plunging into the depths of the old North Town, which had been abandoned by people of quality decades since, and left to the poor, the recent immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere. The streets were narrow, the ancient brick buildings shouldering close against each other, the smells – of privy, waterfront, and cooking almost nauseating in intensity.

“Carry this, no’,” Declan passed the carpetbag to his sister. With the faint scritch of a Lucifer against the nearest wall, Declan had lightened a lantern. “’tis safe enough now for a light – his bully lordship will no’ be looking for us here, Miss Sophia.” Declan Teague sounded most particularly satisfied about that.

“I cannot help but fear that there might be others in these streets,” Sophia had recovered something of her composure, after several twists and turns, each one into a street darker and narrower than the last. “Posing even more of a danger than my brother to us all…”

Declan Teague let out a rich chuckle, “Aye, so you might think, Miss Sophia. But this is where we live, and among folk who know us and protect their own kin an’ kind. You are safer here, amongst us than you have been for a while among your kin. I am thinking. Here – this is the place, above the shop of old Mendelson the Jew. Mind the steps, then …” He held up the lantern courteously; yes, there was a narrow alley between one tall brick tenement and the next, an alley which led to a door – one which might once have been fine, when it was the house of a merchant-prince of the last century. Declan had a key for that door, and Sophia mentally blessed him for the lantern, for the hallway inside was Stygian-dark, the flight of stairs to the next floor and the one above that even darker. At the top of that flight there was another short hall, with a doorway on either side. Declan turned and made a short and awkward half-bow before the door on the right-hand side. “Our home, our fire an’ our salt, Miss Sophia. Ye are welcome, indade. I mus’ be at my place of employment. Aignéis – for that is her right name here – she will explain to you the solution which I ha’ mentioned. Sorry – I am already late. There is one thing, Miss Sophia; gi’ me your hat and mantle.”

“I cannot think why it is necessary for me to give up my clothing,” Sophia protested, although at her side, Agnes whispered,

“Do what he says, Miss … we have worked out a means of laying a false trail.”

Declan opened the door saying only, “Aignéis, she will explain, with Seamus in chorus. Y’r hat now, and be quick about it. I’ll be back in t’ morning.”

“Do as he says,” Agnes whispered at her side, “The mantle, too … oh, dinna fuss, Miss Sophia – I will explain, sure an’ I will. Ye will be safe indade – for we hae planned it all out f’ ye, an’ ye’ will ne’re fear your brother again. Do ye no’ trust us?” Agnes sounded so doleful that Sophia was moved instantly to reassurance.

“I have, all this time – and now I trust to whatever scheme you have concocted … especially since I have no better choice in the matter.” She pulled the pins out of her hat, holding them briefly in her mouth as she handed her hat to Agnes’ brother, then shrugged out of her mantle.

“Good,” Declan grinned again. He leaned down, not so very far, and kissed his sister on the forehead, as he deftly bundled up hat and garment into a small bundle under his arm. “No fear, Aignéis – I’ll be back at sunrise. You an’ Seamus explain it to her, then.”

He was gone down the stairs with his comforting cudgel and lantern, even as Agnes opened the door into a dim apartment which must once have been a generously appointed room, when it was a single chamber and not sliced up into a parlor, kitchen, and sleeping quarters for a family, even one as small as that of a widower with four grown children. There was a tiny iron stove set into the hearth of a stopped-up fireplace, a stove which obviously served as a cook-fire and to warm the premises. A single kerosene lamp provided illumination, to a cot where a boy a few years older than Richie sat cross-legged, reading from a book, which to Sophia’s eyes – in the dim light – looked like some kind of Wild West blood-and-thunder tome.

A pile of ragged clothes and blankets was piled up in the single tattered armchair, drawn close to the fire, and as the door opened and closed, the ragged pile bestirred itself, and an aging and cracked voice inquired, “Aignéis - cailín daor – is that you?”

“’Tis, Da – and I have brought Major Brewer’s daughter with me,” Agnes replied.

“To this house?” the cracked voice broke with astonishment, and the pile of old clothing convulsed. “Aignéis, why did ye do that? ‘Tis not a fitting place for her ladyship …”

“I’m not a ladyship,” Sophia protested, and Agnes answered in placating tones,

“No, Da – but she has no other place to go for this night … and wicked man that he is, Master Richard has brought the doctor at this very hour, to carry her away to the asylum … an’ she is no madder than Siobhan or I.”

The clothes and blankets heaved and reshaped themselves, becoming in the faint light, the figure of a man, bent with age and with one arm so crippled and shortened as to be strapped immobile in a sling on his chest, saying with the courtesy of a lord. “Ye are welcome to share our salt and the shelter of our roof, Miss Brewer – ‘tis little enough, but it is our honor.” So this was Declan and Agnes’ father, Sophia realized: she had often heard of him, in Agnes’ daily conversation – that he had been a soldier in her father’s regiment, and how he had been crippled for life in an accident on the docks when Agnes was little more than a baby. Now he took her hand in his good one, and inclined his head in rough courtesy.

“I thank you for it, Mr. Teague,” Sophia swayed, suddenly faint with exhaustion. “And I am more grateful for your hospitality than I can …” The wave of dizziness threatened to overwhelm her, and Mr. Teague chided his daughter.

“Call me Tim Teague, now, will ye? Settle her in my chair now, Aignéis … the poor lady is no’ well, no’ well at all. Sit there, Miss Sophia – rest ye now …”

So grateful for the consideration that she nearly wept, she sank into old Tim Teague’s chair – the only padded and comfortable chair in the room, if so shabby and broken that even thrifty Great-Aunt Minnie would have relegated it to a bonfire. Tim Teague hovered at her side, patting her hand in a way meant to be comforting, until Agnes brought another simple straight chair from the corner of the room for her father. Agnes herself settled onto a low three-legged stool at Sophie’s knee, and young Seamus set aside his book – thriftily dimming the lamp-wick by which he was reading it.

“Is it true that your brother was feeding you opium and trying to drive you mad so that he could steal your money?” he asked with intense interest.

“Seamus, be hushed!” his sister cried, in an agony of embarrassment, adding as an aside. “Forgive him, Miss Sophia – but ‘tis true that I have talked of your situation… amongst the family, mind – only with Da an’ Declan at the first. Siobhan an’ I – we have always talked about folk we were in service to. It’s an amusement, y’see. It’s one of the only ones we have, a good gossip; sometimes like a play, or the old stories.

“No, Agnes – do not chide him,” Sophia answered, around a lump of grief in her throat. Grief for the lost life she once had, grief for the illusion of the fond and protective brother, grief for herself, lost and forlorn, taking refuge in a boarding house in old North Town. “It is true, every word that your brother and sister have said. And now I have nowhere to go and no friends to turn to, aside from yourselves – is that not as dramatic as one of your books, Seamus?”

“Oh, aye,” Seamus breathed, while Agnes cleared her throat – she sounded at least as tentative and uncertain as her young brother.

“But, Miss Sophia – we have a way for ye to escape, for good an’ all – if, as Declan said – ye have the mettle.”

“She does, indade,” Old Tim Teague assured them all, patting Sophia’s hand again. “She is th’ daughter of Major Brewer o’ the 28th Massachusetts! Never was an officer cooler under fire! Nay, he were not of my company, but all knew of him. The hotter the fire again’ us, the cooler he were, striding up and down along our line, w’ lead shot fallin’ like hail from a summer storm! An’ he would say a few words to every man – humorous-like, as if on a stroll through the Common, as if he had all the time in the world, an’ no other worries than a drink in the next tavern …”

“Yes, Da,” Agnes interjected. “But we came away in such a hurry that Declan had no time to explain. She does no’ know the plan.”

“There is a plan?” Sophia still felt rather faint, considering this unexpected chance. Likely any plan was Declan – or perhaps Seamus’ notion. Agnes was as guileless as a small child. To credit her with a stratagem of any complexity was to think that Richie could suddenly emerge as a captain of industry.

(To Be Continued …)


How we all started on The Door

How we all started on The Door

This is, of course, the carved, solid-wood front door that I bought at the Daughter Unit’s urging last weekend at the neighborhood estate sale. Said door was one of the items crammed into the house formerly owned by an elderly couple with hoarding issues. The estate sale managers told us that they had to fill and empty an industrial dumpster three times, just to get to the sellable stuff. Which, as it was all crammed together in a dingy, airless and dark house, did not show off at it’s very best; honestly, there were some rather nice items available, but a lot looked like several aisles worth of the Dollar Store jumbled in with random contents of the marked-down shelves at Walmart. The blanc de chine lamp was one of the random nice ones – the door was another. It’s some kind of oriental sycamore wood, with four inset panels carved with a sort of lotus and leaf design. It was completely unfinished, and never had been installed.

The center ornament of The Door

The center ornament of The Door

My daughter called our next-door neighbor as soon as I had paid for it: he has a pickup truck, and I think feels rather guilty about how his basset hounds sometimes start barking in the middle of the night. Anyway, he came at once – so did the guy who does all kinds of neighborhood handiwork. All agreed that it was a very nice door – albeit heavy enough to require two or three persons to lift and carry. Well, we had planned and budgeted to replace the front door this year, but some piece of contractor  leftover from the Habitat for Humanity retail store was what we originally had in mind. The day after we bought it, the Daughter Unit and I set to with steel wool and a bucket of polyurethane varnish; three coats to the front, two on the back, and oh, my – did it come out well. There is a thin veneer front and back, which looks very much like something called ‘lacewood’ – a kind of rippled gold and brown effect. The Daughter Unit fears that someone will break into the house someday and steal nothing but the door.

One of the carved panels

One of the carved panels

We did source a latch set from Habitat, anyway – I am almost certain that much of what we use for renovating and replacing certain elements of the house will come from there, if not the marked-down section from Home Depot or Lowe’s. A small bit of panic upon trying to assemble the latch set, when we realized that it was set for a left-hand side opening and not a right-hand one, which was what we needed. Nothing about this in the box, and instructions were there not: It also wasn’t returnable. The three of us – me, Daughter Unit and the neighborhood handyman finally figured out that we could disassemble the latch mechanism itself and convert it to what we needed.

The Door - Nearly done!

The Door – Nearly done!

Oh, and the existing threshold needed to go, as well as the inside door trim, but we had pretty well written that off. Of course now the danger is that this bit of renew-replacement will make everything else look tatty. I’m almost a hundred percent certain that we are due for another inside paint job…

As I write historical fiction and only read around the edges of science fiction, this year’s Sad Puppies campaign, to widen the field for Hugo nominations held some interest for me, in the sense that I do have on-line writer friends involved, some of them very deeply involved indeed. In a small way I have been pulled into the shallows of the controversy just by online friendship and shared interests. The whole controversy would take several thousand words to explain and explore, I have my own books to work on … and well, others more involved are considerably more eloquent.
This is a fairly concise question and answer session. There has been a lot of calumny heaped on certain writers by what appears to be a small, but noisily effective faction, whose thrust seems to be that book awards – and readers – should be more guided not by interest in a cracking good story, but rather by the degree of political correctness involved, and the gender/orientation/ethnic background of either the author or the characters. And that only a certain kind of science fiction fan is the legitimate kind. One of the authors so distained by the politically correct set fires back, with a dispatch from Fort Living Room. A long-time fan replies here.

‘Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,’ as the philosopher Emerson observed, and as I was reminded every time that I changed assignments at the bidding of the Air Force. Having to shift all your personal household ‘things’ every three years or so meant that the acquisition of ‘things’ was kept to a dull roar. Yes, there were the usual artistic souvenirs … and in my case, books without number … but on the other hand, the 220V appliances, transformers, and potted plants usually were handed off upon scheduling of a pack-out date; extraneous clothing and other ‘stuff’ usually had a date with the base thrift store, and what couldn’t be sold or donated was dumped. I couldn’t help observing, though, that my own ‘things’ went from a couple of B-4 bags, a duffle and a suitcase, to a single van-load in the space of three years, and multiplied exponentially in the years thereafter. (Still – in spite of all the books, I was still under the weight limit on the last PCS move.)

But – in 1994, I bought a house, and moving into it constituted my very last PCS move. (Although I never have thrown away the stereo boxes. They’re still stacked in the garage.) My daughter finished her last hitch in the Marines in 2006, and came home to roost with her ‘things’ which went into the house or the garage. We added to the mutual household ‘things’ over the following years, leavened and reduced by the occasional garage sale, or natural household selection. Yes, things wore out; china and glass items hit the floor and broke, I upgraded certain household items like pots and pans, computers, major appliances … but certain things were added to the household, either by my daughter or myself; pictures and books, nice bits of china and glass. That kind of careless collecting of ‘stuff’ might soon slow to a crawl, though, owing to an experience this last weekend.

So, we have always rather enjoyed yard and estate sales. Great was our rejoicing on Friday to discover another one, not three blocks away. There was a good crowd outside, and a huge quantity of tools and boxes arranged on racks in the driveway, and cars and pickup trucks parked on both sides of the street for a block in either direction. This was a most promising development, so we hustled the dogs home and drove back in my car. There was a line to get in – as the sale manager minding the door explained with a terribly harassed expression, there was so much stuff inside the house they simply had to limit the numbers of people coming inside for reasons of safety. The owners of the house had been hoarders. I mean, they had hoarded to the point where the house had been entirely packed. The team managing the disposition of the sale had filled several industrial-sized dumpsters of junk, before they could even begin on the sellable items. There was a storage shed out in back, and apparently some storage units also filled with ‘stuff’ for which there was no room until what was in the house could be sold.

We waited for about half an hour, rather intrigued. We had heard about this kind of thing, but never actually seen it first-hand. The elderly couple whose home this had been were said by the neighbors to be absolutely wonderful, sweet people, and generally good neighbors, but the house had a definite air of neglect about it. And once we did get inside – oh, my god; the house was even more dilapidated on the inside; dusty, unkempt and as dim as a cave. There was no bannister on the upper part of the staircase, and in one room, a massive roof leak in the ceiling had eaten away the ceiling drywall, and spilled dirty insulation into the room – there was, however, a plastic wastebasket wedged between the top of a tall bookcase and the ceiling in an attempt to catch water leaking through. The house, and the back porch was crammed, every corner, nook and closet with stuff; for some unfathomable reason, mounds of luggage. Camera gear and accessories, stereo components and laser printers, most of them new and untouched. Lamps and knickknacks, box after box of sets of china, toy trains, Madame Alexander dolls, still in boxes, much of it covered in dust. Books, of course; one whole walk-in closet lined with shelves of DVDs and VHS tapes.

The lamp - rewired and with new shade and finial

The lamp – rewired and with new shade and finial

I came away with a pierced chine de blanc lamp, which had no shade and wiring so ancient that the plastic practically crumbled in my hands as I took it apart. It must have been in storage for years, for it was absolutely filthy. I’d always wanted one, as they sold them in all sizes in the BX in Japan, but all I could afford back then was a small one. As I waited to pay for it, my eye fell on a a Kodak EasyShare camera, just about the same make and model as the one I currently use – which barely works any more. This one was a slightly older iteration, but unused – still with the protective film over the view-screen, and even had the instruction manual with it. The camera I got for $5 dollars. The estate sale people, I judge, had gone past trying to get fair market value and were just pricing most items to sell as fast as possible to anyone willing to take them away.

We came back on Saturday, just to see if anything interesting was left; there was – enough to carry on the sale through the following day. This time my daughter suggested that we look at the tools and stuff in the garage, which we had not done on Friday. Most of the good power tools and camping gear had sold, but my daughter spotted a carved wooden door. Solid wood, un-finished and for an extremely reduced price … we had intended to replace the front door anyway. So, I bought it, while my daughter called our chivalrous next-door neighbor with a pick-up truck. It’s out in the shed right now, awaiting application of stain and varnish.

Good purchases all, and at excellent prices, but I am resolved after this that any purchases of anything other than books will be on a replacement-only bases. Something coming into the house will necessitate something going out of the house. Whatever the future holds for my estate and home, it should not involve multiple dumpsters.

My Tiny Patch of Suburban Paradise

My Tiny Patch of Suburban Paradise

Or, at least, it has sprung in this part of the world: the wisteria bloomed, the Spanish jasmine is blooming, everything but the gherkin cucumbers that I planted several weekends ago has put up little green blades, pairs of leaves, or as in the case of the potatoes – whole clusters of green and greenish-purple leaves. There are even embryonic apples on the two trees – clusters of three or four little green marble-sized things, which is gratifying. We were worried about the apple trees being suitably pollinated, but the one from Lowe’s three weeks ago and the lonely one planted last year both look to have been visited by bees, the breeze, or whatever. And the peach tree has several long green things that might eventually become peaches in the fullness of time. Over the last weekend, we took some time for retail therapy and purchased some more things for the garden; potting soil, a better grade of garden soil than the unimproved clay normally on order in this neighborhood, some bulbs and roots and corms to improve some of the unimproved corners. Hauling heavy bags and pots hither and yon, scooping up last years’ leaves … well, that proved pretty exhausting. But at least, I now have a back yard that I’m not embarrassed to invite neighbors into. And at the very least, we will have some produce and herbs out of it, although I am still in two minds about chickens.Embryo Apples - Tree 2

My daughter has spotted a chicken coop at Sam’s Club, you see; quite a lavish one, as these things go. The last excursion into Sam’s we went to look at it again, and struck up a conversation with a woman who was also looking speculatively at the display coop. She turned out to be an artist, a neighbor of Victoria’s Black Swan Inn on Holbrook Road, and a friend of Howard the glass artist … so anyway, she talked up the Starving Artists Show in La Villita this weekend. She and my daughter swapped pictures of their creations on their cellphones, and we talked shows and budget shopping and scrounging, the best thrift shops around. It turns out that we are both fans of Thrifttown, and the conversation reminded me that I really ought to stop by there and get some new jeans. The one comfortable pair was pretty close to disintegrating, and well … we were going to hit Rainbow Gardens again, so why not check for any bargains to be had as long as we were going that way?

Purple Iris - hopefully the first of many

Purple Iris – hopefully the first of many

My daughter is always on the look-out for quality crystal and vintage glass, which sometimes show up in venues like Thrifttown, so we did a spin through that section – but on the way from there to the other side of the store, I spotted something oddly familiar, on a shelf with the usual assortment of battered pots and pans; green and pristine, with the glass and metal lid taped securely together. Was it … could it be? Why, yes it was – a classic Chantal enamel small stock-pot with the full-depth metal insert for cooking pasta! You can’t even get that kind or color of The PrizeChantal any more, save on Ebay for prices very close to what they would have been when new. I know this, because about fifteen years ago, I upgraded from the budget set of Revere-ware pots and pans that I had bought when I moved out of the barracks. I picked Chantal because they were nonreactive enamel, nicely styled, had a narrow metal rim around the edges of the pots and pans where the enamel would be most prone to chip, came in a pleasing number of sizes and colors, had glass lids (also edged with metal), and were of high quality but not so expensive that they were out of sight. So I upgraded and was totally happy with cobalt-blue pots and pans, which have served admirably, with hardly a chip or crack among them, although the metal rims of the most heavily-used pots are rather dinged. Alas, like picking my everyday household china from Reading China and Glass at the outlet mall in San Marcos, and thinking that they would be in business forever endeavor and I would be able to replace broken pieces and perhaps enlarge on what I had … Chantal stopped manufacturing that style, and all colors except for bright red and steel-finish. Well …(insert colorful oath here) I suppose I can always trust to luck on Ebay when I want to add another small saucepan or two, but here was a lovely pot to cook pasta in (or even to use as a canning kettle) for the not unreasonable price of $15.

Yes, of course I grabbed it. Even being green instead of cobalt blue, I’d have been kicking myself from here to Waco and back again, if I hadn’t.

Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson

Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson

Exactly a hundred years ago, an enterprising gentleman named James Edward Ferguson took office as the Governor of Texas. He was of a generation born long enough after the conclusion of the Civil War that hardships associated with that war had faded somewhat. The half-century long conflict with raiding Comanche and Kiowa war-bands was brought to a conclusion around the time of his birth, but he was still young enough to have racketed around the Wild West as it existed for the remainder of the century, variously employed in a mine, a factory making barbed wire, a wheat farm and a vineyard. Having gotten all that out of his system, he returned to Bell County, Texas, studied law, was admitted to the bar, and married the daughter of a neighbor, Miriam Amanda Wallace. Miriam Amanda was then almost 25, and had been to college. James Ferguson and his wife settled down to a life of quiet prosperity in Belton, Texas. There he founded a bank and dabbled in politics as a campaign manager, before running for and winning the office of governor in 1914 – as a Democrat, which was expected at the time and in that place – and as an anti-prohibitionist, which perhaps was not. Two years later, having not done anything in office which could be held against him, James Ferguson was re-elected … and almost immediately walked into a buzz-saw. A quarrel over appropriations for the University of Texas system and a political rival for the office of governor – ensconced among the facility as the newly-anointed head of a newly-established school of journalism – eventually blew up into such a huge ruckus that James Ferguson was impeached, with the result that he could not hold public office in Texas again – at least not under his own name.

With the hindsight of extreme cynicism regarding the press when dealing in personalities and matters political, one can wonder how much of the ruckus concerned his actual conduct in office, and how much was created by the state press. His erstwhile rival owned one, had connections with others, and had the backing of the intellectual elite of Texas as it was then. He was also generally anti-Prohibition, which lead to dark whispers that he was in the pockets of the brewing industry. Rather than continue being politically active as a ‘behind the scenes fixer’ James Edward Ferguson came up with a brilliant solution: put his wife out there as a gubernatorial candidate in 1924. Yes, Miriam Amanda Wallace Ferguson, likely rather brainy (being that she had married rather later than one might have expected of a woman of that time, and indulged in education well beyond high school) but in personality rather retiring, hit the campaign hustings with her loyal hubby ever at her side. Her campaign slogan was “Two Governors for the Price of One,” or alternately “Me for Ma, and I ain’t got a durn thing against Pa,” Her husband put on the folksy touch of calling her “Ma” and himself “Pa” – as he was ever a strong advocate of rural farmers and would have their undying support for most of the rest of their joint careers. Miriam Ferguson asked for the votes – and of women especially – as a reaffirmation and support of her husband.
And she was elected, likely to the horror and consternation of her husband’s political foes. She was the first elected female governor of Texas and the second elected female governor in the nation – although there is not much contention that “Pa” Ferguson was the real power behind the chair, as it were. She ran for office again in 1932 – winning a second term. Although she and “Pa” campaigned as folksy, down-to-earth populists, they were in no sense ‘rubes’; teetotalers both, they fiercely opposed Prohibition. “Ma” Ferguson was also generous with the pardoning authority of her office; over the course of two terms, she exercised it some 4,000 times – mostly, it should be noted – for violating various prohibition laws. Rumors did persist, then and rewards that many such pardons were in exchange for cash paid to the governor’s husband. One rather amusing but apocryphal tale had it that a man began walking through a door at the same time as Mrs. Ferguson: “Oh, pardon me,” he said, as the manners of the time required, and Mrs. Ferguson answered, “Sure, come on in – it’ll only take a minute or two to do the paper-work.” She has also (along with a great many other personalities held by their so-called betters to be ignorant and backward) credited with the remark to the effect that if English was good enough for Jesus Christ it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.
And the Ferguson team also came out against the Klu Klux Klan, then very much a powerful force in the rural South and Midwest. In Texas, the Klan’s activities were not so much racism, as it was nativist and wedded to a certain kind of moral authoritarianism, prone to punishing people suspected of adultery, gambling, sexual transgressions, bootlegging and speaking German in public. This tended to excite disapproval among thoughtful citizens who professed to uphold the rule of law. While the Klan could and did control certain elections, especially at the local level – there were organizations just as vehemently opposed to their activities; various influential urban newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle, the Chambers of Commerce, the Masons, the State Bar Association, and a number of citizen’s organizations. As part of her first campaign, Ma Ferguson promised an anti-mask law, targeting the Klan, making it illegal for any so-called secret society to allow members to appear masked or disguised in public. KKK membership in Texas dropped precipitously and continued to drop; whether Team Ferguson’s activities had anything to do with it, or they were shrewd and farsighted enough to see the trend and get aboard is a matter of contention for specialist historians. Still – for a couple who were and probably are still dismissed as a pair of rubes, they chose to oppose one of the stupidest but most well-meant popular social efforts of the early 20th century, and one of stupidest and most brutal organizations as well.