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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: November 11, 2006


Waco Diary

WEDNESDAY: Gazing out of the hotel’s upper windows we can see the famous suspension bridge — once the second longest in the world — refurbished and looking as pristine and unblemished as if it has been built yesterday. And not far away, in a Victorian house, are the artifacts of the man who built it, John Wesley Mann, with cables and three million bricks from plans drafted by John Roebling later used for New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. Surely neither men could have envisaged that more than a century and a quarter later this monument across the Brazos River would be a pedestrian-only (if rarely used) tourist attraction. The 845-mile river bisects the entire state from northwest to southeast, with Waco (“the crossroads of Texas”) being at roughly its central point. It would not, in fact, be too much of a stretch to call this, the bridge that built Texas which, when erected in 1870, not only straddled the South’s main route to the West, but formed a vital part of the vital Chisholm Trail over which five million cattle were driven to northern stockyards via the railheads in Kansas. The hard-bitten cowhands, each tending two or three thousand longhorns, had to exercise especial diligence as the widely-spread herds came together at river crossings, but the bridge — the only one within five miles — made it easier. “He will do to ride the river with” was a favorite expression of the cowhands to confirm trust in their companions.

THURSDAY: On the second day of our media-sponsored tour of Waco, we visited the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame. When it opened in 1968, the elite state police force had already seen action for a century and a half, formed originally to cope with Indian raids and protect the frontier from Mexican invaders. The Rangers, the first state police force (formed by Stephen Austin in 1836), were always a fearsome bunch and what enhanced their prowess was a new-found ability to shoot from horseback after they met up with the young inventor Samuel Colt and replaced their long-arm weapons with the Colt .45. In the early days, the men carved their own badges from 5-peso Mexican coins and were obliged to equip themselves with “a good horse and one hundred pounds of powder and ball”. Captain Bill McDonald (known for his readiness “to charge hell with a bucket of water”) downed one of three men who tried to ambush him and, although shot through both wrists, was cocking his weapon with his teeth when the survivors fled.

The guys who terminated Bonnie and Clyde on May 23, 1934 were Texas Rangers and an issue of the Dallas Morning News describing the drama is on sale ($4) in the museum’s gift shop, a pile of papers that look yellowed and old enough to be originals. The bullet-riddled car isn’t there (it’s on display in Las Vegas) but guns found on its back seat after the pair’s death are on show, along with early crime-solving kits and samples of today’s high-tech equipment. Of the museum’s 14,000 items, probably the most popular are the numerous posters, books and memorabilia from such media as radio’s The Lone Ranger; the Tommy Lee Jones movie Man of the House; and the long-running TV series Walker, Texas Ranger.

At the Dr. Pepper Museum, which served as the company’s bottling plant when it was built in 1906, the animated talking figure of Dr. Charles Alderton addresses visitors from a glass-enclosed display case: ”I decided that the best drink anybody could make would be like the drugstore smelled, you know, with all those flavors mixing in the air. Who would have thought that something as simple as that soda would become so popular? I’m quite proud of it.” And the drink was so popular that it soon had a score of imitators — Dr. K Big, Dr. Smithers, Dr. Schnee, Dr. Pep, Dr. Nehigh, Doc Holiday, Dr. Wells, Dr. Becker, Mr. Pibb — all represented with empty cans, as are more successful rivals: Coca Cola, Seven-Up, and Moxie. Dr. Pepper today belongs to Cadbury Schweppes which also owns Motts Apple Juice, Snapple, and Canada Dry. In a room upstairs from a replica of the original 1865 drug store, we were invited to invent our own soft drinks by mixing seltzer water with a wide range of flavorings.

FRIDAY: Posing outside the vast Mayborn Museum for a two-minute interview, Dean and Nancy Hoch, a much-traveled couple from Pocatello, ID., displayed their latest book, Traveling with Grandkids, revealing unsurprisingly that the commonest problem encountered on such occasions was how to deal with “that mother of all questions” Are we there yet? And how do you answer it? “We let them figure it out by giving them an atlas and telling them how to read signs.” The couple said that as many as 18 million people tour with their grandkids and, in fact, had brought one of their own — they have 19 — a stunningly well-behaved (often seen, rarely heard) pre-teen named Nathan. The museum contained everything he could have desired: at least a dozen rooms devoted to playful instructional games about sound (dancing on huge piano keys), motion (racing rubber ducks), and the development of butterflies.

Waco is justifiably proud of its magnificent Armstrong-Browning Library, all marble pillars, acres of empty space, classy statues and enough stained glass to equip a cathedral. Ostensibly, it’s a memorial tribute to the Victorian English poet Robert Browning (1812-89) and his wife Elizabeth Barrett (“How do I love thee, let me count the ways”) but it’s equally a monument to the considerable ego of Dr. Joseph Armstrong, an obsessive Baylor University professor who raised millions of dollars, oversaw the construction, posed for innumerable pictures and preceded the poets’ name with his own in the library’s name.

It took four hours, including a real hayride, to tour Homestead Heritage with its 18th century grist mill brought in pieces from Pennsylvania and reassembled, beam by beam; its pottery, furniture shop and blacksmith. They grow most of their own food, serving it in a pretty bakery/café. Delicious.

In the evening, the best part of our lengthy excursion to the zoo came in the final hour when dinner was served (chicken or beef, no seafood) against the backdrop of a 59,000-gallon aquarium housing hundreds of brightly-colored fish. We’d already admired bears, bison, cougars, playful meerkats, coyote, jaguar, elephants, tigers, ocelot, monkeys closing with attempts to hand-feed strangely reluctant giraffes. And there was a stop to check on an endearing lion cub, four months old and being nursed back to health after some unexplained illness. The little beauty made a sudden, unsuccessful lunge for Nathan’s right leg. Lion cubs may look endearingly cuddly but their teeth are sharp.

SATURDAY:The morning was spent in Crawford, the nearest town to the Bush ranch, which is little more than a main street with souvenir stores — one of which calls itself “the Western White House” — offering Bush memorabilia and Texas mugs and T-shirts (made in China, Haiti, and Honduras). In the café, where the prez has been known to devour the occasional cheeseburger, the menus and tablecloths are all in Stars & Stripes motifs and in the corner are life size cutouts of Bush Sr., wife Barbara, and the shrub (as Texas’ Molly Ivins tags him). Almost every visitor finds it irresistible to pose with this holy trio. What better way to finish our tour than with a rootin’ tootin’ Texas rodeo? Cowboys bumped from bucking broncos and tossed from buffalo-sized bulls…. Cowgirls racing their mounts around barrels…. Teenagers catching calves by the tail…. Tiny tots trying to stay astride wayward sheep. Superlative organizer that she is, our tour leader Lori offered all members of the press party boxes into which she would ship back the prodigious piles of folders, T-shirts, woolly bears, postcards, and other ephemera that are such an essential offshoot of very media tour of this kind. The kind of specific help that is always needed, it’s rarely volunteered.