"Gone to Texas" was a message left when people seeking a new home and opportunity left the East for the Southwest in the 19th century. My family left Texas during the Great Depression years and there always was a sense that one day they might return. My mother reported that every time she visited she would be asked, "When are you coming back to Abilene?" I went to college in Abilene and worked there for a year after graduation. When Jan and I married we went north for graduate school, quietly affirming Willie Morris' invitation to go North Toward Home. A graduate of the University of Texas, Willie eventually returned to his home in Mississippi. We did not come back but always thought we might.
The reasons were simple: It was warmer in Texas in the winter. People were cordial and welcoming. When we landed in Dallas or Houston on visits, we felt a sense of homecoming. We noted with pleasure the outdoor aura of Texans contrasted to the pallor of New England. Texas women were and are beautiful. We also kept expecting at the airport to run into family or friends and from time to time we did keeping alive the notion that we were among kin.
We valued the religious tradition we had known growing up in Texas. Warm, welcoming people who cared for one another and believed they could make a difference in the world around them. The Churches of Christ were known for a tendency toward bibliolatry, but that was tempered by common sense and openness to the wider world.
Politically it was the land of Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy's death in Dallas was a tragedy that allowed Johnson to wage his war on poverty and his embrace of Civil Rights legislation. We knew he believed the cost of the Voting Rights Act would last for decades, but I thought Texas common sense would mute the extremists. After all, Texas was multi-cultural. The legacy of Jim Wright, Sam Rayburn, Ralph Yarborough and Johnson was real but it has been muted. We suffered through John Tower, praised Ann Richards and were blindsided by W, who friends assured us was more moderate than we thought. Now, in the aftermath of the longest wars in our nation's history and a depression to rival the Great Depression, the attraction of Texas politicians has dimmed.
So why does Texas today feel like a foreign country? Last month I went to Houston and Dallas again. The airports have not changed. They still feel like home and the weather is warmer in January that it is in New England. If I lived in Texas I could still wear boots when I fly; they provide bootjacks when you go through security. But everything else seems to have an edge that denies all the hopes so clear in the Texas I remember.
As the state has become more cosmopolitan, few talk about the common good; there is a lot of talk about guns and rights or so it seems in a state that is reddest of the Red. "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" has a new edge to its old tune but the awareness of changing demographics has been blunted by an individualism admirable on the big screen unless you were watching The Alamo. In a time when government and resources need to come together for the support of public education and public works, there remains more talk about football than K-12 education.
Politics in Texas is dominated by a governor whose mouth is seldom closed and senators who are smaller than life. As I have noted that has not always been the case. Single party politics has not been unusual in Texas, but the post dust bowl passions of the New Deal are notably absent. What passion remains seems personal and captured by one word: NO. Some think Kennedy's death in Dallas was not a tragedy.
We used to think we might retire to Texas. We might still. But the church I knew growing up has become less interested in evoking the Kingdom of God and more interested in imitating the Baptists. My college, Abilene Christian College, now a university, wants to play big time football and the interest means that the money that might fund academics goes instead to the gridiron. Someone needs to note the moral costs of playing Division 1 football.
Older people always lament the passing of an idealized youth. We all hate to grow old, but it sure does beat the alternative. I just wish the good people I remember from my younger years had grown up into good people I would like to spend my last days with and right now I am not so sure. As long as that is the case, "Gone to Texas" will remain on a sign in the closet. I stopped being a missionary along time ago.