Texas Myth #92
Anne Dingus Solves the state’s greatest mysteries.
The Texans in the Alamo were outnumbered ten to one.
The misinformation here is Santa Anna–sneaky. It’s true that some 1,800 Mexican soldiers attacked the 180-plus defenders. But none of the latter were “Texans,” strictly speaking; that term wasn’t in general use in 1836. Natives of the disputed Mexican territory were more commonly called “Texians.” More importantly, though, only 11 of the defenders had been born in Texas. The rest came from foreign countries—notably the U.S. Thirty volunteers hailed from Tennessee alone, including David Crockett; 12 were Englishmen. Ta, y’all.
Q. What is Texas’s most dangerous city?
A: That would be “dangerous” with a Big D. Despite Houston’s dramatic increase in crime in late 2005—which some blame on the influx of 100,000-plus Hurricane Katrina refugees—Dallas is actually the, um, winner. In 2005, the last year for which complete FBI statistics are available, Dallas suffered significantly worse rates of theft and aggravated assault than did the Bayou City (as calculated per 100,000 people) and edged out Houston even in rape and murder. Overall, Dallas has been Texas’s most crime-ridden city since 1998; in fact, in 2001 and 2002 homicides outnumbered deaths from auto accidents. Regarding the latter, the intersection of Texas Highway 121 and Preston Road has been included on State Farm Insurance’s list of the ten most dangerous intersections. Dallas also endures annual bad weather, especially floods and heat waves, and—since it sits on the southern end of Tornado Alley—is overdue for a disaster of cyclonic proportions. (The last twister to target the city hit in 1957.) Finally, there are lesser but still highly risky factors in Dallas, such as the deep-fried Twinkies at the State Fair.
Q: Is it true that the mother of Michael Nesmith, the John Lennon of the Monkees, invented Liquid Paper?
A: Yes—make no mistake. The doughty inventrix was Bette Nesmith Graham, who labored over her product for some fifteen years before it, well, took off. In the early fifties she was a young divorcée working as a secretary in Dallas to support her only child. She found that using the newfangled electric typewriters, with their hypersensitive keys and messy carbon ribbons, often resulted in unwanted strikeovers and dirty smudges. So she started monkeying around in her kitchen to create a quick-drying product that she could brush over typos. Bette dubbed her tempera-based formula Mistake Out, and Mike and his friends bottled it for her in the garage. Encouraged by her colleagues, she soon began hawking batches of the mixture, renamed Liquid Paper, to local retailers. Still, in 1966, after her son had moved to Hollywood and snagged a role on The Monkees, she noted that he had probably made more money in his first year as an actor than she had in ten years as an entrepreneur. But her second husband, Robert Graham, helped her expand the business, and in 1968 the company sold one million bottles. Eleven years later, she sold Liquid Paper to the Gillette corporation for $47.5 million. She died unexpectedly six months later, at age 56.
Q: Did O. Henry set “The Ransom of Red Chief” or “The Gift of the Magi” in Texas? It’s been years since I read them.
A: Neither of his best-known works is set in the best-known state. The former story, about a problematic kidnapping, takes place in Alabama; the latter, a testament to love and sacrifice, in New York City. O. Henry, a North Carolina native, didn’t tackle much serious fiction writing during his fourteen years in Texas, where he moved in 1882. Then known as William Sydney Porter, he worked as a bank teller in Austin, but in 1898 he was convicted of embezzlement. During three years behind bars, he began churning out short stories, many with a twist at the end, his literary signature. He went on to write some six hundred under the pseudonym he adopted to hide his past. His collection Heart of the West contains most of his Texas tales, including “The Last of the Troubadours,” which J. Frank Dobie called “the best range story in American fiction.” Heart of the West was published in 1907, exactly one hundred years ago. Incidentally, the inspiration for the nom de plume O. Henry is unknown, and the Chicago makers of the Oh Henry candy bar—which debuted in 1920—claimed the moniker had nothing to do with the popular writer. O bull.
Q: Why were certain Texas universities once known as “normal schools”?
A: Because that was the day of the little red schoolhouse—not Governor Rick’s little-read schoolkids. (Pardon my spit wad.) Actually, “normal school” simply meant a training college for teachers. The term referred to the norms, or guidelines, to be observed in arithmetic and other subjects and represented Texas’s first attempts to standardize public education. Before then, a wannabe schoolmaster merely had to pass a general exam to earn a state teaching certificate. In 1879 Huntsville’s Sam Houston Normal Institute, now Sam Houston State University, became the first state-supported teachers’ college. More followed, and soon there was a State Board of Nor-mal Regents. Had the famous trail driver Ab Blocker served on it, his fellow cowmen could have called him Ab Normal. But I digress. More pertinent, given today’s school finance fiasco, is the fact that we’ve always had dunces in Texas education. For example, in 1903 the statewide school superintendent, one Arthur “Eraserhead” Lefevre, proposed that University of Texas degrees be considered equivalent to a teaching certificate. At any rate, by 1917 the state’s teaching colleges had all been expanded into four-year universities with broad-based curricula. And nothing about Texas education has been normal since.