Monday, August 22, 2011

Decatur, Texas

It was another tinder-dry North Texas Saturday with temperatures soaring, for way too many days, to 104 degrees in the shade. I made my way to  Decatur, Texas, the County seat of Wise County. Decatur was named for a young naval officer, Stephen Decatur, who found fame in the Barbary War of 1802. He was a young 1st Lieutenant on the USS Essex. Commodore Dale’s squadron sailed into the Mediterranean with the mission to confront the Barbary pirates operating out of North Africa who were routinely attacking American shipping, stealing cargoes and often holding crews for huge ransoms (sound familiar?).

In December of 1803, the USS Enterprise along with the USS Constitution confronted and captured a Tripoltian ketch Mastico. It was named Intrepid and Decatur was given command. He then masterminded a daring attack to deny the enemy one of our captured ships, USS Philadelphia by boarding and setting the Philadelphia on fire right under their noses in Tripoli harbor. Decatur was rewarded for his efforts by being promoted to Captain making the 25-year-old LT. the youngest Captain in the US Navy. This bold event gave the American’s the advantage and on a second attack in 1804, after a very effective bombardment of the city and further destruction of the Tripolian fleet, The Navy brought an end to the conflict and a surrender of the Bashaw of Tripoli (now Morocco) in 1805 and added a stanza to the Marine Hymn.

Originally named Taylorsville, early town pioneer Colonel Absolam Bishop petitioned to change the town's name to Decatur after becoming disappointed with the performance of the town’s namesake, President Zachary Taylor. The area was originally settled by the Wichita Indians, which was the case when Coronado and his band of merry men rolled through in 1540. The first white settler was Sam Woody who built his log cabin in 1854. The original cabin was moved from its Deep Creek location to the grounds of the Wise County Museum where I started my visit. The cabin had undergone a recent refitting with new mud and straw chinking between the timbers. Looked like it could use some air-conditioning.

The Wise County Heritage Museum is located inside of what originally was the Northwest Baptist College. The school operated from 1892 to 1965 when it moved to Dallas and became Dallas Baptist University. The Wise County Historical Society took the place over in 1967, raised funds and have been restoring it ever since. The three-story building houses the complete collection of Wise County agricultural, industrial, and military as well as the everyday life of its residents.

Motto of the 131st Field Artillery

On the second floor is the Museum’s prize collection representing the actions and history of the 131st Field Artillery and survivors of the USS Houston CA-30. The 131st is the famed “Lost Battalion” of WWII who shared Japanese POW status with the survivors of the Houston after their defeat under Dutch command in Java. The Houston was a heavy cruiser launched in 1929 and part of America’s Asiatic fleet sent in as a last ditch (and historians say ill advised) effort to help the Dutch and the British protect the Netherlands East and Australia against the overwhelming force of the Japanese fleet.

The 2nd Battalion of the 131st Field Artillery (made up mostly of volunteers from Wise, Jack and Montague counties in Texas) were thrown into the battle under-equipped and without the possibility of relief or rescue once they landed on Java to support the Dutch. On January 11th, 1942, 35 days after the start of the war at Pearl Harbor, the Dutch capitulated and the 131st were interned.

On February 28th, the Houston was sent to halt a land invasion by the Japanese, which became the Battle of the Java Sea. A valiant but one-sided battle ensued and every ship, including the Houston was sunk.  Of the 1011 men aboard the Houston, only 368 made it off the ship and were taken prisoner. Of the 558 men who landed on Java, 534 became prisoners of war.

Both groups of men ended up being held in camps in Thailand, which was, became the force of workers who would build the Burma Railway and the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai. They suffered under unimaginable conditions for 42 months before repatriation at the end of the war.
The 131st was considered the “Lost Battalion” because for most of their internment, the Japanese never disclosed the Battalion had been captured or allowed the Red Cross in to allow the exchange of mail or communication with family. Of the 902 men from both the 131st and the Houston taken prisoner, 668 were brought to Burma for work on the railroad and 133 died working on the railroad. After completion of the railroad, they were then dispersed throughout Asia as far away as Manchuria in China before being repatriated.

The survivors of the Houston and the 131st organized a “Lost Battalion Association” in 1945 and have held reunions ever since. Unfortunately, like many of America’s “Greatest Generation”, there are only about 22 surviving members left today. Oh yeah, the movie was crap, the bridge wasn't blown up by sappers, it was bombed by B-24 Liberator bombers in early 1945. At the end of the war, as part of Japanese reparations to the Kingdom of Siam, they rebuilt the bridge where it exists today.

A word about the room where the Lost Battalion exhibit is. Clearly, the room is sacred and holds a huge amount of memorabilia about WWII and specifically both the Battalion and the Houston. It is the only exhibit room with its own door (which is locked when other events take place in the Museum’s restored College Auditorium) and is the only exhibit room that is air-conditioned. The room’s contents run from glass cases to stacks of books and newspapers you can just pick up and peruse. Literally, I was in possession of page after page of 1940s newspapers chronicling all the events of the war as well as articles about things reported about everyday life during the war years in Texas. School awards, openings of new businesses, births and deaths of residents and soldiers in battle. Reams of yellowed and tattered pages just lying about. It spoke not only to the deep reverence the Historical Society has for these men but a commentary of how the men and their experience will one-day disappear. It’s our job not to forget them or their struggle.

I left the museum and rode east on E. Hale Ave. to one of the last remaining remnants of the Tourist Camps of the 1920s and 30s. At the intersection of Hale Ave. and US Highways 287/81, is a pristine example of a camp, the forerunner of the modern-day Motel. Back in 1927, a local businessman, C.F. Boydston, put in a gas station to provide services to the motoring public. The newfound freedom of having your own automobile was also a great way to vacation and camp. These early RVers would just pull off the road in their Model A Fords or new Chevrolet and pitch tents on the side of the road. Mr. Boydston saw potential and began allowing travelers to use his property around the station to put up their tents and light campfires to cook with. In 1931 he put up three wood cabins and by 1935 he had refaced his gas station and the cabins using petrified wood rock he had acquired.

A lunchroom was added in 1929 and a second floor was added to accommodate small hotel rooms. It was covered in petrified wood in 1935 and renamed the Texas Café. More cabins and garages were added completing the complex we see today. It was operated by the family until 1988.  No longer an operating motel and gas station, the restaurant still operates as the Whistle Stop Café harking back to the times the railroad used to stop to allow travelers and employees to get a bite to eat. Unfortunately, it’s only open Monday through Friday and not on this hot Texas Saturday.
Well, my hopes dashed to experience the menu at the Whistle Stop, I had to return to downtown Decatur to the next area favorite, Sweetie Pie’s Ribeyes restaurant at the corner of W. Main and State Street. Sweetie Pie’s is part of the well known Vinyard family’s "Bubba’s/Babe’s"  restaurant chain and, like Babe’s, has an old town family style feel to it.

In 1993, Paul and Mary Beth Vinyard opened the first Babe's in Roanoke, Texas, “Bubba” is Paul’s nickname. "Babe" is Mary Beth's nickname; she developed the recipes so they named the restaurant Babe's. Lot’s of home-style cooking which generally involve copious amounts of grease, gravy and grits. The best biscuits you have ever had are deposited on the table when you’re seated and call to you to be buttered up and consumed.

According to legend, “Sweetie Pie” is the name Babe (keep up, that’s Mary Beth) would like to name her pet bull (if she ever gets one). Sweetie Pie’s building was constructed in approximately 1884 and 1885. It burned sometime between 1925 and 1950 (nobody can narrow the time frame down?), reducing it from a 2-story rock building to a 1-story building with stucco. The stone walls are between 18” and 22” thick. On this day, I noticed the longhorn steer head on the wall had a placard stating this was “Sweetie Pie” but had a note attached stating it was actually Sweetie Pie’s cousin Grady. I asked my server about this who politely informed me it was because Sweetie Pie had been sent out for cleaning and Grady had been brought in as a stand-in. OK.
The menu is extensive and involves the Babe’s traditional family style of multiple courses laid out on your table with frequent refills to satisfy your cravings. I was a family of one and had their signature “Chicken Fried Chicken Sandwich” which came with any side but realizing I was about to exceed my entire caloric intake for the week, got a handsome house salad. When the sandwich  arrived, the table creaked under its weight. This thing stood about five inches tall and had a beautiful golden battered fried chicken breast at its center. I’m not lying when I report I had to cut it in half and could only eat one portion before boxing the rest and rolling myself out of that place. Thank God I didn’t get the fries.

Launched back into the blazing noonday sun, I was met by the Courthouse Square and face-to-face with the Wise County Courthouse at its center. Some of you may recall my time at the Ellis County Courthouse in Waxahachie, Texas. Well this is Ellis County’s older sister. Wise County suffered three courthouse burnings in the early 1850s and after the third fire in January of 1895, the County contracted with J. Riley Gordon for the fourth courthouse we see today. Two years later, Riley contracted and built the Waxahachie Courthouse.

Folks, they built this thing for a grand total of $110,000.00 using a windlass to hoist the beautiful pink Burnet County granite blocks using donkeys as the engine to pull the ropes and lift the loads. It must have been and still is a polished diamond in the rough of bucolic Decatur.
I headed north from downtown to locate  the most extensive War Memorial I have ever encountered in my travels thus far, the Wise County Veteran's Memorial Park.

On the lot of a former 1895 church parsonage and then a Hospital in 1935, Decatur built a block-long altar to all those who have fallen from every conflict American’s have ever sent combatants to. I’m talking from the earliest Indian conflicts during colonization to the Revolution, the Barbary Wars, WWI, WWII, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Panama and both Middle East conflicts on a series of stone monuments and placards, no stone is left unturned. Within this circle of honor is the center piece monument to the Lost Battalion and the USS Houston with the obligatory eternal flame flickering between the US and Texas flags.  It’s very moving that such a large exhibit exists in such a small town. It really encapsulates the reverence and patriotism the residents have ensconced in this place.

My path home was along US 380 which skirts North Texas east to west. I am a cronic Historic Marker reader and have been known to do a rapid deceleration (eliciting a sudden gasp from the wife), slam it into reverse and skitter backwards to the break in the trees or bend in the fence where the marker is displayed. Here was that opportunity and, to the shagrin of the unfortunate diesel pick up riding my bumper, my departure from the asphalt was heralded by a loud airhorn and a friendly wave-off from the driver (was that a #1 sign or something more sinister).

Yes, it was Texas Historic Marker gold and what I (and many historians) refer to as a "Washington Slept Here" moment. Here was a landmark sign at US 380 and County Road 2311 indicating that Jesse James and the boys had utilized a patch of land south of the south road edge of what is now US 380 as a hideout camp in our beautiful North Texas. OK...the camp was 1 MILE further south of the signs location but an historic coup if there ever was.

Now I am a closet Jesse James fan but Holy Cow! An historic marker for a spot that I couldn't even see and was obscured by a stand of trees. My imagination ran wild as I contemplated Jesse and the boys rustling up some grub from a hard day holding up trains and banks and visualizing the smoke from their fire wafting up above the tree line I was holding in my gaze. It was almost like I was there. NOT!

Having sampled much of what Decatur is and has to offer, I again put the 4 Runner into drive and made my way back to Frisco to face my next challenge, lawn maintenance with an outside temperature of 104. Can’t wait.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Movie Log: The Help

I am not an accomplished movie critic, but a word about the movie “The Help”. As you may know, we are movie junkies and are regulars to our Cinemark theater because they have the best root beer and popcorn. OK, we have invested heavily in the discount refillable soda cups and popcorn bucket too. We are, after all, cheap bastards when we have to be. We normally don’t attend a movie on the week it premiers but it was a very hot day at the Saraceni Summer (Fall, Winter and Spring) residence and it was the only movie I could tell raised up to my level of intelligence that we hadn’t already seen. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the prequel to Planet of the Apes, Glee in 3D, two guys swapping their bodies and lives (already done) and let’s not forget Smurfs in 3D. And when did we have to suffer through preview after preview of new television shows . It’s the movies for God sake!
The Help is not what you expect. It is not (as my co-worker Tameka pointed out) a Harry Potter movie which follows the book but more a sense of how the book came about. The characters are there but it is more historical than personal. I have not read the book by Kathryn Stockett but I do now.

My daughter first noticed that, as the theater filled up, the crowd appeared to be made up of older folks. Happily, there were many young people present who needed to see this but I saw lots of grey-haired types gingerly making their way up the steep steps to their seats. I wasn’t sure if they were there to relive the past or condemn it but, if they were locals, these folks would have been the demographic of the period the movie addresses. 
Set in 1962-1963 Jackson, Mississippi, the movie takes you for a very serious and sometimes humorous look at the rise of the civil rights movement through the actions and eyes of the African American maids just slightly removed from indentured servitude who cleaned the homes and raised the children of the white wealthy families of Jackson.

Skeeter is the impressionable and clearly anti-racist young woman fresh out of Ole’Miss with a desire to become a great writer taking a job as a copy writer for the local paper. In her role there, she decides to write a piece about the secret lives of Jackson’s wealthiest families through the eyes of their maids. A journey which boldly demonstrates both the influence of the African American experience on these families as well as the blatant racism holdovers of plantation life, the Civil War and Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s that still gripped the deep south well into the late 1960s (some say those days haven’t quite left us yet).
The two lead roles for the maids are Aibileen and Minny (aptly played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer respectively) who take us on a roller coaster of emotions as we watch them, at once, single-handedly run the homes and lives of their employers (or owners depending on your perspective), tend to their own families and the resulting dehumanizing emotional and physical abuse they receive because of their race and perceived lack of place in society. It really makes you want to throw something at the screen when this happens. Bring extra napkins, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Now, I can only hope the author was being sincere when she threw in a smattering of characters who could clearly see the handwriting on the wall and could see that a partied was heading for the door. But they were outnumbered, if you will, by the times they were in and it was more a demur than a real protest. But, like all societal changes, it had to start somewhere. 
I enjoyed the movie a lot, even in those uncomfortable moments when your own race were acting like complete asses on the screen. You really get to hate them and the ignorance they carried around with them like Coleridge’s Albatross. I spent most of my life in what I felt was a pretty enlightened part of the world (Southern California) but I did understand the tensions within the minority communities in my hometown and was made aware, on several occasions, that racism was still alive and well even there in the late 20th Century. Most folks in police work would tell you it’s a constant issue wherever you work.

Now that I’m in Texas, I see that the pall of southern racism still simmers at a low temperature and although the world is changing, the remnants of racist policies still hang in the air like summer humidity. There are days it isn’t present but then there are days it’s so thick, you could cut it with a knife. Old sensibilities and attitudes are hard to break but things are getting better.
As an amateur historian, I loved how they were able to interject the civil rights movement into the story without beating us over the head with it. References to the King marches in Atlanta and Birmingham, the assassination of Kennedy and Medgar Evers in 1963 were almost subtle to a fault yet provided the historical relevance of the movie in that struggle in that slice of Jackson, Mississippi.

Here’s my advice. Don’t go to see it as a commentary on race relations or the civil rights movement. See it as a period piece which has, as its central theme, how a small group of people can empower themselves to change the way they live and how people perceive one another. Even if it hurts.
Two things to watch out for, Minny’s pies and “Minny don’t burn no chicken!” See you at the movies.