Homeward Bound

What have I learned while living in New Jersey for more than a decade? That I want to die with my boots on, back in Texas.

I’ve always been vaguely ashamed that I wasn’t born in Texas, but having moved to Waco and then Temple at an early age, I certainly feel like a native. I was a typical suburban kid—no bronc riding or cowboy hats—but I ate my barbecue at Clem Mikeska’s, two-stepped at the Knights of Columbus hall, and drank my share of Lone Star. After working a bit in Dallas and Houston, I left for the north at the age of 24, in December 1985, landing in New York City a few years later and eventually buying an old house in New Jersey. At first I didn’t think too much about losing my Texas identity. My Tony Lamas, the ones I bought in Lott when I was 19, languished in the closet, but I still made my chili most winter weekends, still caught Jerry Jeff when he came to town. My wife, Marla, a Chicago girl, learned how to make chicken enchiladas. I had a Lone Star flag when we first arrived. Lost track of it over the years.

The first time I became aware of my slow Yankee-fication was when I started “following” the Jets, Giants, Yankees, and Mets. I tried to stay abreast of the Cowboys and Astros and even set up a television at the office to watch Houston lose the ’86 playoffs. But it was just too hard. I had sweated through all those Super Bowls featuring Tom Landry and Roger Staubach just like every other kid, and I remember how strange it was when I felt happy that the Giants had beaten the Cowboys one Sunday. I felt like a traitor.

Some things I never lost, like my accent. I’ve run into Texas expatriates around New York who sound as though they’re from Queens, but I kept my twang. In fact, I found myself cranking it up during interviews now and then. These New Yawkers, well, they hear a Southern accent and they immediately subtract twenty points from your IQ. That’s a useful tool for a writer. It allows you to sneak up on people. Then again, ten minutes on the phone with my mother and it came back even stronger. For days I would remember that the plural of “y’all’’ is “all y’all.’’

The first time I found myself seriously grappling with my Texas heritage was when I started raising children. We have two boys, teenagers now, and they were fascinated by Texana, the hats, horses, and cowboys. They still wear some of the Aggie and Longhorn gear I’ve bought over the years. But that’s pretty much it. They grew up loving the Jets and the Yankees, and in time I surrendered to the fact that I was never going to raise them as Texans. It was darned hard to accept: I was raising New Jersey kids. Even now they playfully roll their eyes when I stress how important it is to never, ever, ever put beans in your chili.

My Texas identity waned as the years rolled by, despite my annual return for the holidays. Then about five years ago, two things happened that made me rediscover it. Our friends Bob and Ann Utley have a ranch outside Belton, and we started driving over for their Christmas party. When the sun set, folks would sit around a fire pit downing Lone Stars, and I listened as the college kids went on about Greek life at SMU and UT and hunting dove and the joys of Joe Ely live. I thought, “God, I miss this. This is the way life ought to be.”

But it was when I started writing my last book, The Big Rich , the story of the wealthiest Texas oil families, that it hit me gale force. For the first time I found myself back on the ground in Houston, Dallas, Austin, Midland, Corpus, everywhere. The cities had grown—Houston seems even more crowded than I remember—but that wondrous spirit enveloped me like the humidity on an August night in Beaumont. I drove the back roads for miles and miles just to luxuriate in the countryside. I would run my hand over the bark of a mesquite tree, thinking, “This— this—is how a tree ought to be.” I took Marla to the Continental Club in Austin, stayed at the Driskill, and rediscovered the pleasures of chicken-fried steak and gnawing barbecue ribs at picnic tables. I found Temple had been Hispanicized since I left, and I sought out the family-run Mexican joints, eating migas and chorizo for breakfast at Tres Magueyes on North 29th Street.

When The Big Rich was published last year, I gave talks at bookstores around the country. In New York and Washington, D.C., I attracted nice, respectable little audiences. In Texas, I swear, I was Peter Frampton. At two or three places, people were lined up on the sidewalk. I would rattle on about the Hunts and the Basses and their place in Lone Star lore, but what I enjoyed most were the questions, regular folks passionately discussing what Texas means to them. Again and again I thought, “This would never happen in any other state.”

Back in New Jersey, I fished my boots out of the closet and began wearing them again. I started loading reams of Texas music onto my iPod: Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton, Los Lonely Boys, ZZ Top, Lucinda Williams, lots of Stevie Ray (greatest find: Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Screw You, We’re From Texas’’). I bought belt buckles and a colorful Pendleton Western jacket that I wear religiously. I got a few looks around our small suburb, but I didn’t care. I was proud to feel like a Texan again, even if I lived in New Jersey. And that’s when I had an epiphany: I may live in New Jersey, but I don’t want to die here. I sat Marla down and broke the news to her: When the boys go off to college, I need to move back.

She resisted, but I’ve been persistent.

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