Texas Myth #514

TEXAS IS HOME TO THE SAGUARO CACTUS. You won’t find the saguaro growing naturally in Texas; it flourishes chiefly in Arizona. Still, the fantasy endures. The stately cactus has been featured widely in Texas postcards, movies (1984’s Flashpoint, set near San Antonio), and book-jacket art (Mary Willis Walker’s The Red Scream). Walker says that when her New York editor sent her the cover, it showed a buzzard atop a saguaro: “I said that that kind of cactus didn’t grow in Texas. She said, ‘Oh, well. Nobody would know that.'”

Q: Was Smokey the Bear a Texan?

A: No, but the real bear who came to personify the ursine park ranger was made famous by a Texan. Before Smokey Bear (note: officially no “the”), the poster critter for the U.S. Forest Service was Bambi. In 1944 federal foresters introduced the cartoon character Smokey and, later, the admonition “Only you can prevent forest fires.” But Smokey didn’t become, well, hot until 1950, after rangers in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico (note: unofficially far West Texas) rescued an orphaned black bear cub that had been injured in a blaze. New Mexico’s chief game warden, Elliott Speer Barker, a native of Moran, ordered the cub nursed back to health and urged the Forest Service to adopt the bear as the living Smokey. The big guy died at the National Zoo, in Washington, in 1976; his slogan lived on, albeit slightly altered. After a record-breaking number of blazes in 2000 devastated 8.4 million acres across the U.S., it was changed to “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Of course, if you want to get right down to the lick log, that’s not exactly true: Although human error causes the majority of wildfires, lightning ignites roughly 13 percent of them.

Q: What is the meaning of the expression “get right down to the lick log”?

A: The term, kept alive by such salty Texas writers as Molly Ivins, refers to a salt lick provided for cattle. Because salt is an essential requirement for animals (and tortilla chips, but I digress), to “get right down to the lick log” means to deal with the most important details of a matter. Okay, but what exactly is a lick log? Western novelist Elmer Kelton, of San Angelo, theorizes that the expression harks back to days when cowboys would hollow out dead trees to serve as troughs and fill them with plain ol’ granulated salt.

Q: I know Jayne Mansfield was a Texan, but a friend says she wasn’t born here and that her fatal car wreck happened somewhere else. Who’s right? And, um, was she really decapitated?

A: Jayne Mansfield wasn’t born in Texas, but—all together now—she got here as soon as she could. Born Vera Jayne Palmer in Pennsylvania in 1933, she moved to Dallas in 1939 and attended Highland Park High School. In 1952 she headed to Hollywood, where her platinum hair color (artificial) and Texas-size bosom (natural) helped her win a few movie parts, but her breakout role was her 1955 Broadway turn in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Yet Mansfield was always more of a sex symbol than an actress—she posed repeatedly for Playboy—and by the sixties her career had waned. In Louisiana on June 29, 1967, on the way to a TV gig in New Orleans, the Buick Electra in which she was riding slammed into the back of a tractor-trailer rig, killing her and the other two adults in the front seat. Mansfield suffered severe head trauma, but she wasn’t decapitated; that rumor arose because her wig flew off and out of the car on impact.