“I salute the Empire of Texas!” President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed on a June day in 1936 to a crowd gathered at the newly named Cotton Bowl. He proclaimed it to the rest of the country as well, since his remarks were being broadcast nationwide. Texas, for once, was the place to be. The Texas Centennial Exposition, in Dallas—designed and built in a mere ten months to celebrate a hundred years of revolution, nationhood, statehood, secession, and blustery regional identity—was the state’s coming-of-age gift to the world and, more crucially, to itself. The frontier past was over, and all the marvels of the twentieth century were on spectacular display.
Among the proposed goals of the Centennial was to “Texanize Texans” and to create an extravaganza “bold enough to please the still hearts of Austin, Travis, and Houston, and big enough to mirror the accomplishments of Texas to all the sons and daughters of earth.” The Exposition’s art deco–inspired architectural style was labeled “Texanic.” The Big Show, a B movie starring Gene Autry, was filmed mostly on location at the Exposition, and if you watch it today you can get a sense of the scale and the self-conscious spirit of the event: rows of marching Texas Rangers; the grand esplanade flanked by colossal buildings with stately symbolic statues; and the vast stage of the Exposition’s biggest attraction, the Cavalcade of Texas, a pageant in which the state’s history was depicted in a flurry of galloping horses, ever-changing sets, and pioneers driving their wagons across the lonesome prairie. Elsewhere on the grounds were a replica of the Globe Theatre, full-size robotic dinosaurs, and attractions such as the Streets of All Nations, which provided visitors with an anthropological excuse to watch a nude woman dive into a flaming pool of water. At the center of it all was the State of Texas Building, a somber palace consecrated to the noble idea of Texas. Former governor Pat Neff declared the building to be the “Westminster Abbey of the Western world.”
Has there ever been a state that tried so poignantly hard, that wanted so desperately to believe in itself and to ensure that that belief was passed on to subsequent generations? We’re a long way from 1936 and its high-water mark of Texas exceptionalism, but that please-notice-us legacy still endures. I’ve never been immune to it, and I don’t think I’ve ever been exactly opposed to it, but because I came of age in a very different time—the counter-triumphalist sixties and seventies—I’ve always been squeamish and suspicious about the notion that Texas is, or at least has to be regarded as, the promised land.
It’s an attitude that probably seeped into my identity as a father. I wasn’t one of those proselytizing Texas dads to my three daughters, forever schooling them in the glories of their native state. I was too conflicted to play that role. But at the same time, there was something I didn’t want them to miss, the sense that they didn’t simply happen to live in Texas but were from here. There was just enough family history to justify some kind of aura of destiny. Though I was born in Oklahoma, somebody on my father’s side of the family was said to have fought at, or been at, or been in the vicinity of, the Battle of Sabine Pass during the Civil War. Through my wife’s family, the girls could trace their lineage back to a Georgia doctor named William McMath, who joined up, in 1842, with the ill-advised Mier Expedition, an attempt by an army of piratical Texans to seize parts of northern Mexico. Some of the men were later captured, and every tenth one was ordered to be executed, their fate determined by whether they drew a white or a black bean. I remember telling my children that they would not exist if some homesick, blindfolded guy rotting away in a Mexican prison in 1843 had not had the good fortune to pluck a white bean out of a jar, but they just gave me that please-do-we-have-to-stop-at-another-historical-marker look.
They were, I suppose, understandably wary. If I put myself in their place, I would have to understand that “Huh” was the only reasonable answer to a question like “Do you girls realize you’re looking at possibly the last remaining Spanish mission aqueduct?” Or that when they innocently asked, “What do you want for Father’s Day?” they did not mean they were ready for a two-hundred-mile round-trip to inspect the original site of Washington-on-the-Brazos.
As they grew older, though, pride of place inevitably took hold. The younger girls, Dorothy and Charlotte, went to college in New York and then worked in the city at purportedly glamorous jobs for a few years before coming home. It was the old story: they moved to New York for the excitement and opportunity, they moved back to Texas for the queso. Among the other things they badly missed, they told me recently, were giant-sized iced teas in Styrofoam cups; swimming holes; long, empty roads where the drivers in their pickups would give you a hi sign as they passed; and not having to explain to people what happened at the Alamo.
But you can’t step into the same Texas twice. In the few years they had been gone, the state had become a subtly different place: more and more strip malls and chain restaurants had continued to fill in the open highway stretches between cities; favorite hangouts and hideaways had either closed or exploded into unbearable hipster meccas; rent was up and jobs were scarce, though not as scarce as they were in the rest of the country during those recession years.
While they had been away, there had been a quiet, momentous shift in demographic history: the growing minority populations had finally overtopped the white, non-Hispanic majority, which had been calling the shots in Texas since 1836. This fact was in vibrant evidence a few months ago when I went to my niece’s law