I’ve got Texas on my mind, having just spent seven days down there.  Here are some observations:  

People in Texas aren’t normal.  

And on this point they will proudly agree.  In their minds they are far superior to normal: bigger than normal, louder than normal, richer than normal, faster than normal…  

My cousin Phillip lives in Dallas and we visited him this trip.  He has always been a mild, gentle sort of soul.  But since he’s been saturated in Texas culture for years now, I’m starting to wonder if his current quietness isn’t actually some sort of Texas smugness.  I’m afraid I’ll have to keep a closer eye on him from now on. 

We went down there for the wildflowers, stunning in April.  The Texas Department of Transportation hires gardeners to plant 15 tons of wildflower seeds every year along the state’s highways.  We saw bluebonnet, fox glove, primrose, Indian paintbrush, winecup, tulip poppy, coreopsis, and lantana …galore, all up and down the state.  Add in our visits to the Dallas Botanical Garden, the Ft. Worth Botanical Garden, the San Antonio Botanical Garden, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center… and we felt like we were in bits and pieces of the Garden of Eden all week.  

We also went to a rodeo, saw a longhorn cattle parade, enjoyed art and history museums, and ate Tex-Mex, steak, BBQ, and seafood.  

But enough boring stuff about what I liked.  Let’s get back to Texans not being normal.  I’m particularly thinking about flags and guns. 

Texans simultaneously love and hate the U.S.  Everywhere we went we saw the Texas flag, right next to the American flag, just as big, just as prominent.  Texas law requires that the state flag be the same size as the U.S. flag and that it be flown on an adjacent pole just as high.  Some places only had the Texas flag, not even bothering with the stars and stripes.  

If you go to Texas, some will tell you that they were the only state ever to be a sovereign nation, and that “if we want we can jettison the rest of the country and be our own nation again.”  This factoid leaves out a few actual facts.  

Texas was a part of Mexico until the Texians and Tejanos rebelled and declared their independence in 1835.  The fact was, Mexico had banned slavery and the Anglo-Texans, mostly immigrants from the American South, wanted to keep their slaves.  War ensued between Mexico and the rebels.  The rebels got themselves trapped in the Alamo (a mission outpost abandoned by the Catholic Church—turned military fort). Things didn’t go well for them in the battle of the Alamo.  It was March 6, 1836.  By the end of the day they had all been massacred by Santa Anna (president of Mexico) and his troops.  

Two months later, however, Santa Anna made a tactical blunder and was captured by Sam Houston. He agreed to let Texas go free in exchange for Houston letting him go free.  

Texas immediately applied for statehood in the United States… and was turned down.  It took until 1845 before they were finally admitted to the union.  That arrangement lasted only 16 years before Texas rebelled again, over slavery, again, deciding along with 10 other southern states that freedom was only for white folks.  In the Civil War they got whumped just like at the Alamo. But that time there was no “after-the-battle” trade to be had.

Another fact not mentioned in Texas is that there was another state that was once an independent nation. Hawaii was a republic from 1894-96.  In fact, Hawaii was once a Kingdom, something Texans haven’t achieved, yet.  

In any case, Texans fly their flag all over the state and even have a Pledge-of-Allegiance to the Texas Flag which school children (since 2003) have been required to recite:  “Honor the Texas flag.  I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”  

And then there are the guns.  At 6 a.m., while still asleep in the Motel 8 outside San Antonio, I was awakened by six gunshots outside my door, all in the span of less than 3 seconds.  Personally, I’m not a gun person.  I have friends who love guns.  And I understand.  But those friends and I avoid talking about guns and take up other topics of more mutual interest. In fact, the only weapon I own is my garden hoe, with which I kill lots of weeds. 

So, when I was suddenly awakened from my slumber that morning, I wasn’t quite sure what to do.  Keeping quiet under my blankets in the darkened motel room seemed the wisest choice.  But then I imagined that someone might have been shot. And it seemed compassionate to call 911 for them.  So I did.  "Shots fired." The operator promised to send a police officer out to take a look.  Not knowing what else I could do, and not having my garden hoe with me as protection, I decided to just go back to sleep.  It could have been a drug dealer… or a jealous husband… or just someone mad at Motel 8, shooting up the pillows when they pulled out that morning.  (The pillows were kind of lousy, and since everyone in Texas seems to have a gun, why not?)

When we were at the Alamo we saw a man sitting at a table displaying half a dozen guns.  Jie asked me what he was doing there and I responded that he looked like he was there to talk to people about guns.  Not quite believing me, she looked at him and asked him why he was there.  He explained that he was there to talk to people about guns.  She then asked him why he was just sitting there saying nothing if he was supposed to be talking.  

He asked her if she wanted to hear something about guns.  (I knew she really didn’t.)  Trying to escape the evident awkwardness, I asked him to tell us which of those guns was his favorite.  He picked up an 1842 Harpers Ferry 69 caliber musket and bayonet and said he liked it because it was made in his home state.  At that point I thought we might have something to talk about besides guns, since it happens that I once lived in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  I said, “Oh, you’re from West Virginia!”  

“No, I’m from Virginia.  Harpers Ferry was in Virginia when this was made.  West Virginia should have never left the south.  True West Virginians have always wanted to be confederates.”

I quickly switched the subject back to guns, trying to deescalate his angry political passions.  In his mind, the Civil War wasn’t history, it was still a political sore spot.  So, I asked him what else he liked about that gun.  He said that he liked that he could kill someone three ways with it:  shoot them, stab them, or bang them on the head with the handle.  By this time some other people had walked up and started to listen.  We took the opportunity to slip away.

It is clear that politics is as alive and mean and bucking in Texas as that bronco we saw at the Ft. Worth rodeo.  Flags and guns are just the start of it. And don’t get me wrong, I think politics is fascinating and necessary, and I respect those who are skilled at it.  Politics is all about persuasion:  how we get others to go along with what we think is best.  Of course, sometimes we only think  about what is best for us and people who think like us.  But sometimes politics is much nobler.  Sometimes politicians try to persuade others about what is best for the whole community, and our neighbors, and the entire world. Politics doesn't have to be selfish all the time.

And the reason I can keep my sanity when politics does get heated is because I can always duck into history as a respite.  History demands that we bracket out our passions. It's stories and discoveries will surely evoke passion within us. But the discipline of history demands that refuse to let our feelings govern our thoughts. Good historians suspend judgment on others. The idea behind history is simply to know all that can be known and put it all into context, as much context as can be discovered.  History is never done.  There are always new facts and new contexts to be unearthed.

And by that standard Texas is a great place to visit, goofy as its politics is…because it is also a paradise of history: never ending stories and their contexts, helping us learn how to live with the mess we have today.