I Shall Never Surrender or Retreat . . .
. . . from teaching my fifteen-year-old daughter about her Texas roots. So when I realized I was failing to accomplish this most sacred of duties, I did what any well-meaning parent would do: loaded her (and her friends, of course) into the car and hit the road.
“So here’s the deal,” I said to my fifteen-year-old daughter, Tyler. “We’re going to spend a weekend doing something Texas-y. I’m calling it our Texas Heritage Weekend.”
“You okay, Dad?” Tyler asked, briefly peering up from her iPhone.
“We’re driving down to San Antonio to visit the Alamo, our state shrine, and then we’re going to a small-town rodeo to get a glimpse of what Texas used to be like.”
There was silence as Tyler read a text from a distraught girlfriend who was apparently in a dead-end relationship. The girl’s boyfriend, a theater student, was questioning the meaning of life and had no time for love. “And what exactly are you hoping to accomplish with this trip?” Tyler finally asked.
“Well,” I declared, trying to remember the speech I had devised a couple of days earlier, “I’ve been writing stories about Texas since long before you were born. I love Texas. Yet somehow, I haven’t taught you the joy of being a Texan. As far as you know, you could be growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia. It’s one of my biggest failures as a parent.”
I waited as Tyler took her time typing something profound to her friend about the fickleness of the male species and the shifting nature of love. “Okay, keep going,” she eventually said. “You want to turn me into a Texan in a single weekend?”
In fact, that was precisely what I intended to do. My daughter has spent her entire life in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of North Dallas, a paradise of upscale uniformity where almost everyone drives foreign cars and drinks coffee at Starbucks. She is starting her sophomore year at an arts magnet high school downtown, where there is no Friday night football game, no marching band, no drill team, and certainly no 4-H club. Her goal in life is to write plays about angst-ridden teenagers who are on the verge of complete emotional collapse. Recently my wife, Shannon, and I went to see Tyler perform a song she had composed for a student showcase held at a Dallas restaurant. Dressed in her usual uniform—high-waisted shorts and a vintage T-shirt—she strummed on her guitar and sang in her best Norah Jones voice: “I am a little girl screaming to break down the doors of this cell / I am a supersonic electronic atomic bomb, so things aren’t really going so well.”
We rushed up to her afterward and exclaimed, “Wow, that was beautiful!”
“Um, I don’t think you got the message,” Tyler replied. “That song was about having to live a life under parental oppression.”
I couldn’t be prouder of the girl. She has that perfect combination of charm and sarcasm, something I have spent my life trying to achieve. Still, I am stricken with guilt that she doesn’t seem to have any interest in Texas whatsoever. Her childhood has transpired only 140 miles from where mine did, in Wichita Falls, but it might as well have been overseas. I grew up around oil wells, reading Louis L’Amour novels and playing cowboy on my wealthy friends’ ranches. One day in junior high, I hung around the set of The Last Picture Show, hoping I would get a glimpse of Cybill Shepherd naked. Tyler, however, couldn’t care less. When I asked her once if she would like to buy some Western clothes, which would involve shopping at a store other than Urban Outfitters, she gave me a blank stare and said, “Dad, cowboy hats are too show-offy for my taste, and I don’t know anyone at my school who wears cowboy boots except for a couple of gay guys who think they are making a fashion statement.”
Nor does Tyler have any feel for the state’s history. This past spring, I asked her what she remembered from her seventh-grade Texas history class. She mentioned that her teacher had had the students watch the film Dances With Wolves—which has nothing to do with Texas, by the way—so they could develop a better understanding of Indian life. During the scene where Kevin Costner’s character has sex with a widowed Indian woman, the teacher quickly covered the screen with the Texas flag. “We stared at the Texas flag while we listened to sex noises,” Tyler said.
“That’s it? You don’t remember anything about the Texas Revolution? The NASA astronauts? Roger Staubach’s Hail Mary pass to Drew Pearson to beat the Vikings in 1975?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“Okay,” I said to my wife, “we’re doing a road trip.”
It’s a solemn rite of passage, of course, for Texas parents to take a Texas road trip with their kids. Inevitably, the family visits the Alamo—a trip, I’m ashamed to admit, I had never done with Tyler. Not that she was remotely interested in going. “I want to see Portland, Oregon,” she told me. “It’s supposed to be edgy.”
To help entice her, I told her she could bring along a few friends. She invited one of her best buddies since childhood, Ryland Portele, an ebullient junior who cheerfully joins just about every extracurricular organization at her high school—yearbook staff, mock trial, cross-country, biomedical research club—and then just as cheerfully announces, sometimes within days, that she’s moving on to join something else. Also coming along was another childhood friend, Ava Fechtman, a cheerleader who’s determined to get into the University of Texas at Austin and study international business. And then there was Caroline Danielson, a friend since middle school who’s so gloriously offbeat that, upon learning about the trip, she immediately went online to order cutoff shorts with the Texas flag stitched on them so she could look, as she put it, “like I sort of know what’s going on.” When Caroline arrived at our house, I asked to see the shorts. She held up a pair embroidered with the American flag instead. “Sorry,” she said earnestly. “I decided I liked this design better.”
We headed out of Dallas in a rented SUV, and just south of downtown, I pointed toward one of the city’s more peculiar landmarks: a handful of Longhorns in a fenced-in pasture adjoining Fuel City, a gas station–car wash–taco joint. “Don’t you find it fascinating that the owners are so devoted to Texas that they raise Longhorns?” I asked.
“That’s pretty nutty, making cows smell gasoline fumes all day long,” Tyler said. Wearing headphones and listening to music on her phone, Ava suddenly blurted out, “I love One Direction,” referring to a popular all-boy pop band. “They are my life.” Alarmed, my wife turned around in her seat. “Oh, Ava, honey, did you just say, ‘I’ve had depression all my life’?”
“Hey, guys,” Ryland happily piped up. “I don’t have depression, but I’ve been told I have dysgraphia. That’s when you have really bad handwriting!”
The trip was already getting away from me. An hour or so later I swung into the old Carl’s Corner, the countrified truck stop about an hour south of Dallas that once sold Willie Nelson biofuel. I made the girls pose for a picture in front of what had to be the world’s largest collection of Texas knickknacks: an endless display of plates, toothpick holders, salt and pepper shakers, shot glasses, beer mugs, refrigerator magnets, and so on, every single piece of it inscribed with the phrase “Everything Is Bigger in Texas.”
“Gross!” said Tyler. Ava, meanwhile, was continuing to hum along to One Direction, and Ryland was taking a photo of herself with her phone to send to all of her friends. Soon, Tyler and Caroline were also taking photos of themselves and sending them to their friends. In their world, this is called “taking selfies,” and it is considered an essential form of communication.
Various truckers and tourists stared at me sympathetically as I herded the girls into the SUV. I tried to get a conversation started about what it means to be a Texan. “Well,” Caroline said, “I guess it means you have to live here in the state of Texas.” Ryland announced that she liked Texas “because it’s got a really cool shape and would make a good tattoo.” When we passed through Austin, I pointed out the state capitol, but by then the girls were no longer listening to me. They were absorbed in a movie on the SUV’s DVD player, Paranormal Activity 3, about two young sisters who become demonically possessed and terrorize their mother and her boyfriend.
After a couple of bathroom breaks—apparently, the last thing to develop in an adolescent female is her bladder—we arrived at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa. I chose the JW because the management goes to a lot of trouble to provide a Texas experience for the guests. All the food in the restaurants is grown or raised in Texas, and on weekends local musicians perform in the lobby. But as we pulled up to the front door, the girls noticed only one thing: the young male workers in the lobby. “Look at him, he’s so hawt,” the girls texted one another as they followed the bellman to our rooms. They changed into their bathing suits and raced down to the pool, where they added several lifeguards to their hawt list. A Texas-themed scavenger hunt had been arranged for that evening by the hotel, but because the girls kept getting distracted by more and more hawt boys (truly, I had never realized there are so many), the hunt lasted until close to midnight.
“So what do you think of the trip so far?” I asked hopefully after they tromped back to their room.
“It’s really educational,” Ryland said, trying to look serious. “I’m becoming a better Texan. Thank you so much.” Then she and the other girls burst out laughing.
When we arrived at the Alamo Plaza the next morning, the girls spent the first few minutes ignoring the Alamo altogether. They were far more intrigued by a street preacher standing a few hundred feet from the Alamo’s entrance. Beside the preacher was a tall sign that read, “Drunks, Homosexuals, Abortionists, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Witches, Idolators. Warning: Hell Awaits You.”
Ava and Ryland, both fervent Christians, immediately began striding toward the preacher to tell him that God forgives everyone who asks to be forgiven. Ava whipped out her phone and called her father back in Dallas to make sure she had a Bible verse properly memorized. “Thanks, Dad! You’re the greatest!” she said, and she turned back to the preacher to bellow, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God!” The poor man was so discombobulated that he packed up and left.
“Yay!” the girls cheered. Then they headed for a snow cone stand.
“Could we please at least walk in the direction of the Alamo?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm.
Like just about everyone who visits the Alamo for the first time, the girls were perplexed by how small it is. “What are we supposed to look at?” asked Tyler, feeding part of her cherry snow cone to some large orange koi swimming in a stream that runs through the grounds. Figuring this was as good a time as any, I took a breath and launched into the Alamo story (which, truth be told, I had only recently memorized). I told them about Colonel William Barret Travis, the 26-year-old leader of the defenders, who was pretty hawt himself, at least as portrayed by Alec Baldwin in The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory. “Like some romantic hero of yore, he sat down at his desk in a building inside these walls and wrote, ‘I shall never surrender or retreat,’ ” I intoned.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Skip,” said Ava, “but you just spit in my face a little bit while you were talking.” I struggled on, telling the girls about Davy Crockett showing up from Tennessee for what he had to have known would be certain death. I described James Bowie fighting from his sickbed.
“Will there be, like, a test on this later?” asked a clearly anxious Caroline. “Is that part of your story for the magazine—giving us a test to see if we pass?”
Tyler took a couple of selfies, not even attempting to get part of the Alamo into the background. Caroline announced that she was concerned that her teeth looked yellow because she had eaten a pineapple snow cone. “Hey, I’m getting a call from New York!” erupted Ava. “It’s a recording from a college. They want me to visit!”
“Please!” I cried as my wife walked away, pretending not to know me, apparently convinced the security guards were about to ask me to leave.
In all fairness, the girls were not completely uninterested in my Alamo tour. At one point, when I told them about all the men who had died, they wanted to stand exactly at the place where Travis, Bowie, and Crockett had been found. (“Do you have an obsession with death?” I later asked Tyler. “All teenage girls do,” she said serenely.) When we walked into the Alamo chapel, they actually listened as one of the tour guides pointed out the sacristy, where the women at the Alamo hid with their children.
“Just like Anne Frank,” Ava whispered.
It was a lovely moment of epiphany that lasted, oh, until the girls walked into the Alamo’s gift shop. Like socialites checking out a new line of Hermès Birkin handbags, they studied the various Davy Crockett coonskin caps. They perused the “Victory or Death” anklet socks and the infinite variety of T-shirts, including one that spelled out the words “The Alamo” with shiny rhinestones. The girls kept using phrases like “too weird” and “so retro” to describe what they saw. I knew what that meant. They wanted the clothes, and it wasn’t long before I was at the register, running up a huge bill. Tyler put on her Alamo shirt, took a selfie, and then declared that she wanted to cut holes in her T-shirt “because that will make it look really, really cool.”
I had one last chance to save the Texas Heritage Weekend. That evening, we headed for the Tejas Rodeo, not far from our hotel. Created by Trey Martin, a former rodeo performer turned San Antonio lawyer, the place looks like a movie set. Next to the arena is a general store, a steakhouse, a couple of walk-up bars, and an outdoor dance floor where a country band plays for the two-steppers late into the night. Kids ride their horses in an adjoining field. Both the American and Texas flags snap in the breeze.
“We’re going to watch bull riding, calf roping, barrel racing, all of it,” I told the girls.
“Isn’t this animal abuse?” asked Tyler.
“No, this is an opportunity for you to see how the West used to be, when men and women had to struggle to harness the unbridled frontier,” I said, perhaps stealing a line from Louis L’Amour.
Sighing, the girls followed me toward the entrance, their sandals making click-click sounds. Martin had agreed to give us a tour, and after we spotted him, he told the girls he wanted to introduce them to some genuine bull riders.
“Oh, here we go,” said Ava, rolling her eyes, holding on to her cellphone and clearly wishing she could attach the headphones to her ears so she could listen to another song by One Direction.
Then from out of the crowd came a young man wearing a wide-brimmed hat with an open crown, a pearl-snap shirt, tight Wranglers, and dusty square-toed boots. He pushed back his hat and gave the girls a dimpled, what-the-hell grin, his eyes crinkling like James Dean’s. Right behind him came another identically dressed young man with the same grin and the same eyes.
“How you girls doin’?” asked the first cowboy.
“Y’all sure are good-lookin’,” said the second.
The girls began to breathe loudly through their noses. Ava stuck her phone in her back pocket. Tyler stopped taking selfies. The cowboys were named Garrett and Colt. When they invited the girls to come to the chutes to watch them get ready for their rides, all four followed as if they were in a trance.
While the arena announcer fired up the crowd—“It’s the real deal, the greatest show on earth, all-American rodeo!”—the two bull riders, along with half a dozen others, stretched and loosened up. Garrett, who works as a welder when he’s not rodeoing, was standing just a couple of feet away from the girls. Suddenly, he began unbuttoning his shirt so that he could put on his protective vest. On the left side of his chest was the word “Texas” tattooed over an image of a young woman putting on a cowboy hat. Over his right rib cage was a much larger tattoo of an outlaw wearing a bandanna.
Almost simultaneously, Tyler, Ryland, Ava, and Caroline turned away. “He’s just too beautiful to look at,” Ryland said. “Too beautiful.”
When Garrett’s time came to ride, he eased himself down onto a bull’s back, pulled tightly on the rigging, and nodded his head. The gate slammed open, and the bull flew across the arena, spinning sideways, then leaping into the air, all the while throwing his head back as if he wanted to spear Garrett in the chest with his horns, which were as thick as baseball bats. Garrett hung on, waving one hand above his head back and forth like a windshield wiper.
The bull did another spin to the right, threw Garrett to the ground, and stomped on his abdomen. The girls gasped, shivered, and finally cheered with all their hearts as Garrett staggered back to the chutes, holding his side as if he’d been shot. Caroline and Tyler attempted to shout “Yeehaw!” but they got embarrassed and shouted only, “Yee . . .”
To the girls’ disappointment, Garrett soon left with his girlfriend, a pretty blond teenager in boots who had spent most of the evening giving the city girls a look of mild disdain. But it wasn’t long before Ava and Ryland were being chatted up by some other cowboys, who wanted to give them their cell numbers so that they could text. “You text?” Ryland asked, incredulous.
Caroline, who has a boyfriend, refused to participate in any cowboy flirting, as did Tyler, who kept insisting, “These boys aren’t my cup of tea.”
“Yeah, but you seemed interested in Garrett,” I said.
“Dad, please, he had tattoos. I like all boys who have tattoos.”
But later that night, as the post-rodeo dance was in full swing, I happened to see Tyler approaching a mechanical bull that had been set up across from the general store. Dressed in a tank top and cutoffs, she walked across the padded floor, threw her right leg over the fake bull, grabbed the leather strap with her left hand, and then, to my disbelief, raised her right hand above her head just like Garrett had done.
I cupped my hand to my mouth and shouted, “Tyler, no! You might hurt your guitar hands!”
But it was too late. With the flick of a lever, the operator sent the bull circling to the left, then back to the right—and then the bull started bucking. To my amazement, Tyler maintained her center of gravity and hardly wobbled. The operator turned the lever again, causing the bull to buck harder. And yet, my North Dallas arts school daughter refused to yield. She rose and swooped with the bull, and her right hand remained up in the air: the classic rodeo pose. “Ride that bull’s sorry ass!” one of the cowboys yelled at her.
When she eventually got thrown, she dusted herself off and gave me a flinty, confident look—the same kind of look you see in old paintings of the frontier Texans.
“Amazing,” I said.
“Oh, come on. It was no big deal—just a bull ride,” she replied. There was a pause, and then she grinned triumphantly and pulled out her iPhone to take a selfie.