I WAS BORN IN 1937 in Austin, where my father worked at the Becker Lumber Company, down on Congress Avenue where the Radisson Hotel now stands. But when I was five years old, World War II was on, and he got a new job helping to build the Bluebonnet Ordnance Plant, near Waco, a bomb factory.
It’s a funny story how we got there. Back then it was at least a three-hour drive to Waco, and we had this 1932 Ford. That old car had no metal top on it, just cloth. It leaked so bad that whenever my mother would go to the store on a rainy day, she’d take an umbrella and put it up—inside the car. And there was no way the tires on it could last the ninety-mile trip to Waco. So when my father got the new job, we drove over to my grandfather’s dairy farm, which was near the old Austin airport. We went out there, and we put our car up on blocks. Then we put Grandpa’s car up on blocks right next to it. My dad took the tires off of Grandpa’s car and put them on our car, and my uncle put our tires in the back of his car and followed us up to Waco. When we finally got there, we went through the whole process all over again so my uncle could bring Grandpa’s tires back to Austin.
We stayed in Waco until the factory was built, and the next year I enrolled in first grade at four different schools. First we went to Fort Worth, where my father got a job building housing for the workers at what we called the bomber plant—it’s now Lockheed Martin—in what became the city of River Oaks. I started school there. But then the government said they were going to draft my father, so we moved back to Austin to live with my grandmother in case he had to go away. I was only six years old, but I can still remember the first day at the new school and being just totally lost. I didn’t know anybody.
Well, not long after we were back in Austin, President Roosevelt announced that they weren’t going to take men of a certain age if they had children, which meant my father wouldn’t be drafted. He got a job working in a shipyard in Houston, so we moved down there, and I started at the third school. We were there only about three weeks because we couldn’t find a place to live. We were living in a motel. Eventually, the construction firm in Fort Worth said they had found another job for him, so we moved back. I enrolled at my fourth school. But I didn’t really mind. We were finally settled, and we stayed there the rest of my childhood. I can remember us being so happy to have a house of our own after what we had gone through. We felt so good as a family.
Tom Brokaw was right when he called the people of that era “the greatest generation.” My parents both came out of the Depression. My father hadn’t been able to go to college because he had to stay at home and work on the farm to pay the taxes. My mother literally almost starved to death. Her father couldn’t find work, and her brother, who was just thirteen years old, worked in a drugstore. He brought in the only money in the family. Then, to be faced with World War II—it’s unbelievable.
Everybody had to scrape in those days. We didn’t know how tough it was at the time; we just thought that was how it was. Whenever I go back to Fort Worth, I always try to take a drive out to River Oaks and look at the little house where we lived. It’s still there. It’s amazing to me to think about what we went through and how everybody just pulled together to get through it. They were rationing gas. For a while we were going to school in shifts, a morning shift and an evening shift. There weren’t enough schools because so many people were pouring into the city to work at the bomber plant. And I’ll never forget the way that I knew that World War II was over. One Sunday my mother took me and my sister to Sunday school. When we came home, there was a 1946 Plymouth sitting in the driveway at our house in River Oaks. It was black, and it looked so shiny sitting there. That’s when, for us, the war was over. My father had finally been able to get rid of the old Ford.
I saw my first politician when I was ten years old. It was Lyndon Johnson. We had heard that he was coming by helicopter to the vacant lot where we played baseball. It was very exciting; I had never seen a helicopter before. My dad took me down there, and sure enough, I pointed up at the sky, and there was this airplane with no wings on it. Johnson was on a bullhorn and said, “This is your candidate for the United States Senate, Lyndon B. Johnson, and I’ll be down there to see you in a minute.” It scared the dickens out of me. All this noise coming out of the sky. We didn’t know if it was God or what. When he finally landed, he gave a great speech, and before he left, he threw his hat