That Sinking Feeling

In 2008 the History Channel “refreshed” its identity. It would drop “Channel” and henceforth be known simply as History, a giant untethered balloon of a name that seemed to signal not merely a re-branding but a brazen appropriation. But with great words come great responsibilities.

The Texanist

Q: I was born and raised in Nacogdoches back in the good old days before cable TV, computers, and cellphones. Part of the fun back then was “diller” hunting. Many an hour was spent with friends rampaging through the woods of East Texas hunting these remnants from ancient times. The lore surrounding armadillos was wonderful, but one thing puzzled me. We were told that when you drove over one, it would jump up and hit the bottom of the vehicle.

Our Toad to Ruin

The most famous lizard in Texas history came from Eastland, a small town about a hundred miles west of Fort Worth. The reptile in question began its ascent to national notoriety one day in 1897, when the town leaders gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking on a new courthouse being built to replace the one that had burned down the previous year. During the ceremony, justice of the peace Ernest Wood saw his four-year-old son playing with a Texas horned lizard, a small, sandy-colored, ant-eating reptile with a pair of horns on its head and jagged spines protruding from its blunt snout to its stubby tail. The lizard, Phrynosoma cornutum, is frequently called a horny toad, and its genus directly translates to “toad-bodied,” ascribed to the lizard’s froglike broad body and awkward gait. In the wild they normally hibernate between October and April, a behavior that possibly inspired an old cowboy myth that horned lizards can live without food or water for one hundred years. That day in Eastland, Wood decided to test it.

The cornerstone of the courthouse was to be hollowed out and used as a time capsule; Wood offered up the lizard, which his son had named Blinky. It was placed in the capsule, along with a Bible and several newspapers and coins, and sealed in. Three decades later, according to legend, when the courthouse was demolished to make way for another, a crowd of three thousand was astonished to see a dusty lizard pulled from the cornerstone still alive. It had a broken leg, and the horns on its head were worn down, as if it had tried to escape, but otherwise it was a healthy, breathing horned lizard. Renamed Old Rip after Rip Van Winkle, the lizard became an instant celebrity and even visited President Calvin Coolidge in Washington, D.C. If a Texas reptile was destined to end up at the White House, it naturally had to be a horny toad.

The lizards have been revered by Texans since long before Old Rip, their cultural significance stretching back before there was a Texas. The Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon, and Mimbres cultures painted or carved horned lizards on pottery, rocks, and shells that date back thousands of years. The Navajo, Hopi, Papago, Pima, Tarahumara, and Zuni mythologies viewed horned lizards as symbols of strength. Meriwether Lewis, during his two-year exploration with William Clark of the territory in the Louisiana Purchase, wrote about a “horned lizzard.” And early Texas pioneers, homesteaders, ranchers, and naturalists became enamored of the creatures. More recently, in 1993, the Legislature declared the horned lizard the official state reptile, and you can now buy a Texas license plate with a horned lizard on it. You can also enjoy a horny toad cocktail (vodka, triple sec, and lemonade), dine at the Horny Toad Cafe and Bar in Denton, and buy a chopper from the Horny Toad Harley Davidson dealership, in Temple. Horned Frogs remain the mascot for Texas Christian University, which has one of the top college football teams in the nation, and the town of Kenedy was designated by law the official Horned Lizard Capital of Texas. These lizards, toads, frogs—whatever you call them—are part of Texas lore.

Wade Sherbrooke, a retired herpetologist and author of the definitive field guide Introduction to Horned Lizards of North America said people’s fascination with the horned lizards has to do with the juxtaposition of their fierce appearance—the spiked domes and almost angry faces—and their gentle and harmless nature. “They don’t bite, they don’t scratch, they’re very placid animals,” Sherbrooke told me by phone from his home in Arizona. “They’re unusual in shape and design, and so they’re attractive in that way. They’re part of the natural world that one can easily engage without being fearful.” 

Because of the lizard’s docile nature and slow reflexes, any Texas kid with a bit of curiosity can easily catch and play with one. And, until recent years, they weren’t hard to find. Texas horned lizards have historically been among the most abundant of the seventeen species of horned lizards, all native to the plains and deserts of North America. What distinguishes the Texas horned lizard from the others are the two prominent horns on its head and the white stripe running down its back. Texas horned lizard populations stretch into Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, southeastern Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as much of Mexico. Based on museum records and anecdotal evidence, they were once seen in most of Texas’s 254 counties in great numbers. But not anymore.

Beginning about fifty years ago, Texas horned lizard populations in the state, especially in the eastern half, started to decline, and they have continued to drop to this day. By the late sixties, people noticed that they didn’t see horny toads as often. But because they can be well camouflaged—and no one has ever counted all of Texas’s horned lizards—it’s difficult to quantify the population and its decline. Wendy Hodges, a herpetologist and conservationist, undertook a statewide horned lizard survey in 1992 to try to pinpoint how many were left. Hodges and four field assistants visited 99 locations where horned lizards had once thrived and found them at less than half. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which bills itself the world’s largest global environmental organization, estimates that there are probably about 100,000 Texas horned lizards in the wild. Though the species is threatened, extinction is not imminent. The group ranks the lizards in its “least concern” category. Still, most recorded histories and recent research suggest that the current population is a tiny fraction of what it once was. 

Why horny toads have been dying off remains a mystery. “There have been lots of theories,” said Andrew Gluesenkamp, the state herpetologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “To this date, I could not put my finger on a single smoking gun.” The most commonly blamed culprits are fire ants, over-collection, and habitat destruction. It turns out that horned lizards, despite their legendary ability to endure years of deprivation, are quite fragile. 

In response to the decline, the Legislature passed a law in 1967 banning the collection, export, and sale of horned lizards. Texas has never exactly led the way on environmental issues, so it’s an indication of the esteem in which they’re held that horned lizards gained such protection. Still, their numbers continued to dwindle. In 1990 a group of concerned Texans formed the Horned Lizard Conservation Society, which is working to discover what’s causing the disappearance of the horny toads and partnering with ranchers, farmers, and landowners to protect them. As horned lizards continue to vanish, the conservationists fear that something else will be lost to history: a piece of their heritage, a unique connection to the Texas of their childhoods. So they’re trying to bring the toads back.

My Summer of the Shark

All that year, my father and I worked on the movie, Summer of the Shark. It was 1977; I was nine years old. By then, I saw him only on weekends. For three years, he’d been away, finishing medical school, serving out his time in the Army, and when he came back, he didn’t live with my mother and me. He bought me a tripod, a hand-cranked editor for splicing footage, yellow boxes of film.

Prepare Yourself For Texas-Themed Emoji

What happens when a country musician and a web-savvy college student, both from Texas, meet on the Internet? Beautiful, Texas-themed emoji magic, baby.

Rich O’Toole, a country artist from Houston, teamed up with Sean Compton, the creator of Sorry, I’m Texan, to fill a void they both felt in the current emoji stackup. O’Toole was tipped off that some crucial communication tools were missing from his digital alphabet when he noticed the common emoji keyboard has no taco icon.

“I just can’t believe there aren’t emoticons based on Texas,” O’Toole said in a recent phone interview with KENS5 San Antonio. “Texas is like, it’s own country. We have our own everything.”

Watch a Video of One of the Most Aggressive School Bus Drivers in Texas

We’re not shy about using superlatives when describing public servants (heads-up for the Best and Worst Legislators list in the July issue, y’all); however, we don’t usually extend such judgments to, say, school bus drivers. But this has got to be one of the worst school bus drivers in Texas: 

Meanwhile, in Texas . . .

  • An unidentified criminal robbed the same Dallas sub shop four times in two months.
  • Nearly four hundred fish died at the Texas State Aquarium, in Corpus Christi, when workers inadvertently added the wrong chemical to the water.
  • A Grand Prairie man was jailed for two nights after failing to pay fines he incurred for not maintaining his lawn.

Corps Values

In February, Texas A&M University announced that Alyssa Michalke, a twenty-year-old junior from Schulenburg, would become the first female commander of the corps of cadets in the school’s 139-year history. The significance of her appointment can’t be overstated. After the corps first accepted female members, in 1974, the women were often insulted, even physically abused. Recently, the corps has drawn more women to leadership positions, and Michalke’s appointment turns a page in the corps’ history book.

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