Friday, November 10, 2017

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Not too long ago, my sister, my nephew Bryan, and I went to Midland, Texas to clean out my brother’s house following his death from congestive heart failure. Rob didn’t have family other than his relatives Back East, so if the job were going to get done, we were the ones to do it.  My sister and her family had lived in Midland from 1980 to 1990, so she and Bryan knew the lay of the land. That made our time there much easier.

Midland, for those not in the know, is midway between Fort Worth and El Paso, which translates in English to the middle of nowhere. Vintage postcards said the place was "the land of the modern pioneer", which, I suppose is better than, "a place you don't want to live if you can help it". Midland sits atop a geologic formation known as the Permian Basin, which, fortunately for the town, is filled with oil. Population wise, Wiki says Midland is the 24th most populous city in Texas which puts it someplace between Mesquite (144,788) and Waco (132,356), two cities not on my bucket list.

Carolyn and I flew from Pennsylvania and rendezvoused with Bryan, who lives in North Carolina, at the DFW Airport, which has the largest Coke machines I've ever seen. The airport is so large that the tram from one terminal to another takes forever and a day to get you to your destination. 

My sister pointed out the Braniff International Chapel. I’m not sure if a chapel named after a dead airline is the most peaceful place in an airport, but it probably beats the reverie you’ll find in line at a tchotchke shop while waiting to buy a $47 neck pillow that is guaranteed to look stupid hanging from your backpack.

Once we landed in Midland we had plenty of time to hang out in the Midland International Air and Space Port (yes, that’s really its name) since we’d taken advantage of a free offer to check our bags. We had to wait at baggage claim while the airline found some undocumented laborers to carry them from the plane to the terminal. My sister had plenty of time to pick up our rental car.

According to Visit Midland, the Midland International Air and Space Port is a tourist attraction since it’s home to the Pliska Aeroplane, the first airplane in the state of Texas. It was built in Midland in 1911 as a knock off of a Wright Flyer by John V. Pliska, a blacksmith, and Gray Coggin, a chauffeur and auto mechanic. It didn't fly very far, but since Texas had an airplane before Oklahoma, there was general rejoicing.

I was surprised to see Jehovah’s Witnesses hanging out at the airport. Who hangs out at airports these days, even if you do have to meet a monthly quota of selling subscriptions to The Watchtower? Perhaps they sensed that I’d had my fill of religion-to-go in walking by the Braniff International Chapel, but I got out of the airport with my own Watchtower subscription.

Almost all of the advertisements in the airport were about the oil industry. Some of them made me scratch my head and say "Huh?".

We didn’t work on Saturday evening but watched Penn State spank Michigan on the TV in our hotel lobby bar. We consumed enough adult beverages to think taking a selfie was a good idea. It's sort of out of focus. I think there was part of a burrito stuck to my phone.

Bright and early on Sunday, after going through the takeout window at local favorite, JumBurrito,  we went over to my brother’s house to get to work. As soon as we pulled up to the place, two neighbors came over to tell us how much they liked Rob, how nice he was to their kids and so on. I was pleasantly surprised since he and I often had a difficult time getting along. Obviously, they saw a side of him that I didn’t.

Rob’s house was a disaster. I’m not going to go into a lot of details other than to say that his house was the dirtiest place I’ve ever seen, and since I have plenty of experience cleaning up student rentals, I have some bona fides in this department. We wore masks and gloves and at one point even Tyvek suits as we filled three 20-yard dumpsters with the leftovers of Rob’s life.

I’m glad his neighbors liked him, but why didn’t they tell someone that his house was unfit for human habitation?

When I cleaned out my mother’s house and my aunt’s house, there were occasional nostalgia-inducing moments where I would open a drawer and find an old birthday card, prom photo, or postcard of some motel in a town I’d never heard of. There was nothing like that at Rob’s house. Unfortunately, I never understood the gravity of his mental health issues and how they affected his ability to take care of himself.

Cleaning up the place meant garbage bags, duct tape, and so on, so we made a bunch of trips to Lowe's and the local hardware.

Lowe's in Texas is the same as it is everywhere else, except Texas was the only place where I’ve seen a guy wearing a #buildthewall tee shirt...
...and a woman in thigh high boots on the same day.

After a day of cleaning we went back to our hotel, showered, put our dirty clothes in the washer and headed out to dinner. We ate a place in downtown Midland called Wall Street Bar and Grille. It was a place my brother went to from time to time. For all his issues, he knew how to find a good meal. The restaurant was near the George H.W. and George W. Bush United States Court House.

Midland Menus describes the place as “Midland as Midland gets.”  I couldn’t tell you how long it had been there, but a long time. Even the menu was old fashioned: steak, chops. No artisanal, heritage, free-range, non-GMO tofu dusted with kale pollen in this place. The service and food were top notch. And the place still hands out matchbooks too.

Downtown Midland is pretty generic, like Oklahoma City, though I didn’t see an office tower named Corporate Tower as they have in Oklahoma. Some of the older places, like the Midland Tower and Midland Map Company had a bit of personality. One of the banks had, in addition to the traditional time and temperature, a digital reader board that also showed the price of oil and natural gas, and the active rig count in the U.S. Yeah, they don’t do that back east.

After dinner we drove by my nephew’s old high school. We found the names of some folks he knew on the wall of commemorative bricks outside the main entrance. There were a few cars in the parking lot.  Judging by the kinds of cars and how they were tricked out, Bryan concluded that the “kickers” or as we would say, rednecks, parked in the same section of the parking area that they did 30 years ago. Plus ça change, podner.

Another thing that hadn't changed was the architectural gem known as the Pepto-Bismol House. It made me think of my Aunt Doris. She was on a first name basis with "Pepto".

Day two we were back at it and my nephew found the find of the trip, a VHS copy of Knockers #29. I didn’t get my phone out to take a photo since I didn’t want to accidentally drop my phone into a garbage bag.

For lunch on Monday, we opted for a place that my sister and nephew enjoyed when they lived in Midland in the 1980s, Johnny’s Bar B-Q. Johnny’s is a local landmark and has been in town seemingly forever. BBQ in Texas is a very personal thing. As they say in gay bars, "One man’s meat is…..OK, well, I don’t need to go into that right here.

Even though the place is surrounded by office towers worthy of oil barons, Johnny's wasn’t particularly upscale. Frankly, it was great to be in a non-chain restaurant, which is so easy to default to after a morning of beavering away throwing crap into a dumpster.

The owner, Tami Gilleam, has to be the friendliest bbq lady in all of West Texas. When my sister told her that she’d moved away from Midland in 1990, they chatted away as if they were long lost high school chums. Tami couldn’t have been nicer. She was way too polite to mention that the three of us smelled like my brother’s house, which no one would mistake for the Chanel No. 5 factory.

The bbq I’m familiar with is pork, most frequently served as pulled pork, in a sauce that’s either tomato or vinegar based. North Carolina is famous for its pulled pork. My thoughts on pulled pork are the same as my father's on drinking: if God made anything better, he kept it to himself. 

In West Texas bbq, is typically beef brisket, though there are other options like turkey and so on, if you’re a weenie. And in Texas, lots of bbq is cooked over mesquite. North Carolina has lots of problems, but thankfully mesquite trees aren’t one of them.

I had some brisket and turkey (yes, I’m a weenie) with side dishes of southwest corn (think creamed corn and then some), cole slaw, and Texas toast. It was delicious. My sister and nephew stuck to the brisket and thought it was topnotch, too.

After lunch, Tami told me that she had a local artist paint the pig vignettes that decorate the walls of the restaurant in order to give the place an Austin-ish vibe. Each one represents a special Midland organization or business. I loved them, but creating an Austin-ish vibe is a challenge in a place where in the last election 78% of the votes went to the Republican presidential candidate, and there wasn’t even a Democratic candidate for the Congressional seat.

Tami also told me that Laura Bush’s father was a friend of the original Johnny. He and Johnny used to engage in tomfoolery involving drinking, gambling, and whatnot back in the day. I didn’t ask for a whole lot of details since Carolyn and Bryan were waiting to get back to the work site, so, when you go, be sure to ask Tami about it.

On day three of the clean-a-thon, Bryan flew back to North Carolina. But Carolyn and I were there for two more fun-filled days.

That afternoon we knocked off early, showered, and went to Midland’s premier touristy hot spot, 1412 West Ohio Avenue, otherwise known as The George W. Bush Childhood Home. It’s near downtown Midland, my nephew’s old school, and the Pepto-Bismol House. The site consists of the house and the visitors center that’s across the street.

We were the only visitors in the place.  Based on our experience, tourists needn’t worry about a timed ticket, or the shuttle bus from the satellite parking area, or getting ptomaine poisoning from something in the museum café. If you want an intimate experience, it’s the place to go.

The very nice director of the site greeted us and asked us what brought us there. My sister said “I’m a Republican!” which fortunately meant that we didn’t have to go into the “We’re in Midland to fill a dumpster with our brother’s crap” story right out of the starting gate.  The woman was the epitome of Texas friendly. My guess was that she’d have made everyone from Al Gore to Dick Cheney feel right at home.

We bought our tickets and she gave us the rundown on the site as we walked across the street to the house.  The place was built in 1939 by a woman named Mildred Etheridge, who lived there with her sister. The docent didn’t mention if Ms. Etheridge wore sensible shoes, but my mind went there since she was notably without a husband. Ms. Etheridge had an entrepreneurial bent and went on to build several other houses in the neighborhood. The Bushes bought the house in 1951.

The house isn’t very big—1,500 square feet, but it was home to George H.W., Barbara, W.  and his sister Robin, plus JEB, and Neal, who were born after Robin died of leukemia. Youngest son Marvin and daughter Dorothy were born after the family had moved out.

The house is more museum than house museum, that is to say, only the kitchen, W’s bedroom and a portion of the living room are interpreted as if it were during the years the Bush family lived in the house. The other rooms have very well done displays on the history of Midland and, interestingly enough, the place of baseball in the Bush family. Had this been a museum devoted to the Bryant family, that last room would have been about the place of the Whoopee Cushion in the Bryant experience. No one would ever mistake the Bryants for the Bushes.

I’ve only been to one other house museum of this vintage, so it’s a new experience to look at someone’s idea of a 1950s kitchen and think, “Oh, my grandparents had that exact roasting dish”. I don’t believe that any items actually belonged to the Bush family though the china matches a pattern the Bushes owned, and the refrigerator was formerly Laura Bush’s mother’s “extra” refrigerator. That is, what my family would call a beer refrigerator.

W’s room was probably neater than it was when he lived there, but, absent an unmade bed, some dirty clothes on the floor, and a Playboy magazine hidden between the mattress and box spring, it seemed like a reasonable approximation of what a boy’s room would have looked like circa 1955. Our guide told us that when Bush 43 visited the place, he lingered in his old room in a reverential moment, so the organizers must have done something right. Then again, he might have been waiting for the right moment to retrieve that old Playboy when no one was looking.

The place isn’t Mount Vernon or even the Herbert Hoover Birthplace in West Branch, Iowa but if you are taking a break from cleaning out your brother’s house, by all means go. The gift shop was nice too. George W. Bush isn’t to everyone’s liking but compared to certain presidents with orange hair and tiny hands, he’s speeding down the HOV lane toward being immortalized on Mt. Rushmore.

After our visit to the Bush home, we went to the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. The museum is all about Midland’s A#1 industry.


...Black Gold...

...Texas Tea.

Admission was $12, which I thought was steep. We started out our visit with the orientation movie. Big mistake.

Without a doubt the Petroleum Museum had the worst movie I have ever seen in any museum. The film was called Mythcrackers which is a takeoff on Family Feud. The chipper host quizzed the contestants about fracking, oil reserves, and so on. Real edge of your seat type stuff. I couldn’t figure out if it were intended to entertain high school kids, but it didn’t entertain, educate, or even amuse us in a kitschy way. Frankly, it was a bit patronizing. We left early; it was that bad.

The rest of the museum is all over the place. There was a gallery on the role of oil in our lives. It was just OK.

There was gallery of mineral samples; I skipped that.

I lingered at the Petroleum Hall of Fame, though its digital interface didn’t work well.
And then I did a jiffy tour of the gallery of especially meh western art. And I'm speaking as someone who likes western-themed art.

The high-water mark of the museum was a gallery of vintage Chaparral racing cars built by Midland homie Jim Hall for the Can-Am series of races in the 1960s. They were really cool, but their connection to the oil business is tenuous. You could sit in a replica car as a photo op, but that experience wasn't designed with someone of my age and natural grace (or lack thereof) in mind.

If you go to the Petroleum Museum, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go right to the cars, call it a day, and leave.

After topping off our tanks at the Petroleum Museum, we headed down the road to Midland’s more blue collar neighbor, Odessa, immortalized in the Buzz Bissinger book, Friday Night Lights.  We weren’t on our way to a high school football game. We were going to see Odessa’s version of Stonehenge.

Yes, Stonehenge.

Erected in the great American tradition of building something crazy in hopes that it will be a tourist attraction, a group of Odessans thought that their own Stonehenge would lure visitors from nearby I-20. I don’t think that archaeologists, or whoever decides these things, can really say that the Druids who built Stonehenge, didn’t build it to stimulate their own tourist-based cultural sector.  This Stonehenge, on the campus of the University of Texas-Permian Basin, is a very un-Texan-like 14% shorter than the real deal. The stone was donated by TexaStone of Garden City and apparently the company said to the LDD (Latter Day Druids), this is what’s free, deal with it.

I went to the real Stonehenge in 1978 and was underwhelmed. (I know, I’m a Philistine!) The one in Odessa is at least 14% more underwhelming, even if, unlike the original Stonehenge, it is right across the street from Home Depot.

This is the first fake Stonehenge I’ve been to, but according to Wikipedia they’re practically a dime a dozen. Carhenge, built from old cars in Nebraska, still exists but Fridgehenge, Phonehenge, Tankhenge, and Twinkiehenge have come and gone.  Surely Moanhenge, made from discarded VHS porn tapes--Knockers #1 to #28, perhaps, is on the drawing board somewhere. If you build it, they will to speak.

If you're into Stonehenge replicas, you should check out Clonehenge, a blog about that very topic. Who knew?!?

What could possibly top a Texas Stonehenge? The Odessa Jackrabbit, that’s what.

The big bunny, quite possibly the world's largest jackrabbit, is named Jack Ben Rabbit, after John Ben Shepperd, the man who spearheaded its construction in 1962. Shepperd was a segregationist and anti-communist, but pro-rabbitist, who, for whatever reason, thought that Odessa would benefit from a giant fiberglass jackrabbit statue. No, I don’t know what he was smoking.

Jack Ben Rabbit, who was wearing a red ribbon in a promotion of the local school district, is flanked by two historical markers. One, put up by the state of Texas, dishes out the facts about jackrabbits—fast, big ears, prized for food by the plains Indians and white folks too. Standard stuff.

The other marker, erected by Odessa Heritage in 1990 is about The World’s First Jackrabbit Roping. It’s worth repeating in full, through the magic of cut and paste:

Contest began as a “hare-brained” publicity stunt during the 1932 annual Odessa Rodeo, held at 3rd and Grant Street Site despite objections from out-of-town do-gooders. Local sheriff opposed event, but Mayor and Judge ruled no violation of Texas law. Cowgirl Grace Hendricks roped rabbit from horseback in five seconds flat, winning over numerous male competitors. Notorious contest revived in 1977 causing coast-to-coast outcry. Midand animal lover delayed action by liberating captive jackrabbits. Event proceeded on schedule when former prisoners returned at feeding time. Seven ropers competed on foot. Jack Torian placed first with a six-second scamper. In 1978, Humane Society blocked all future ropings with a court order. 

Texans really know how to write a historical marker, don’t they?

Interestingly enough, Grace Hendricks, here seen on the right, went on to become the first female Justice of the Peace in Ector County, Texas. I hope she administered justice with the same elan with which she lassoed jackrabbits.

After another day of work at my brother’s, my sister and I threw away our work clothes and headed back to Pennsylvania. Rob’s earthly cremains, which one of his friends delivered to us at the start of our trip, went ahead of us in a Priority Mail Flat Rate Box that I accidentally mailed to the wrong address. Oops!

Rob wouldn’t have wanted to go with us anyway: he hated flying coach.