WHITE TRASH, LIBERAL AND PROUD Living in the Holy Baptist Empire of East Texas, where the First Baptist Church is just a stone's throw from the local beer joint and the First National Bank is housed in a double-wide, at least provides plenty of interesting stories. When you plunk elements of feminism and liberalism slap-dab down in the middle of Klan Kountry as well, the possibilities are endless.
I hail from tiny Tool, Texas, whose claim to fame is that Anne Rice's husband's cousin's neighbor's kinfolk (or somesuch) once lived there. And our mayor, Red Phillips, was one of the original "Our Gang" kids, playing the chubby little kid who wore the knit hat with the ball on top and tormented Spanky. That's our mayor. Tool is so small that we have no grocery store, no post office, no school. We do, however, have legions of churches, mostly Baptist, mostly housed in corrugated metal buildings or double-wide trailers. And lots of auto body shops.
Tool is a suburb of Greater Gun Barrel City, a favorite touristy spot for Dallas' nouveau riche and assorted paramilitary organizations. It's a haven of white trashedness, replete with grand and gaudy yard art, the requisite pink flamingos, porcelain toilet/flower pots and the like. The late baseball great, Mickey Mantle, was a founding father and developer of Gun Barrel City. Rumor holds that what attracted Mantle to the area was its seemingly never-ending supply of moonshine stills.
One thing is for certain: both Tool and Gun Barrel City are held firmly in check by the Christian Right of Henderson County. While not a bastion of liberalism, Henderson County has given us such great populists as former U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough and Federal Judge William Wayne Justice. Among other things the Christian Right is trying to clean up those blots on the county's legacy.
Yarborough sponsored more bills promoting libraries than anyone else, ever. He expanded the G.I. Bill of Rights and battled big real estate interests to create the Big Thicket National Park and to preserve Padre Island. While working for the Texas attorney general's office, he secured the ruling that made the Permanent University Fund (the state oil revenue earmarked for higher education) immune from the bone-picking jaws of predators, and he continued to support educational opportunity as a senator. Books. Education. Yarborough.
Justice, who was appointed to the federal bench by Lyndon Johnson at Yarborough's behest, once was considered the most hated man in Texas. Justice presided over the desegregation of public schools in Texas, secured the right to education for the children of undocumented workers, and forced the Texas Department of Corrections to adhere to simple codes of human decency.
Neither Yarborough nor Justice currently reside in Henderson County, but their influence cannot be denied. A couple of years ago, all that liberal influence came back to haunt the good citizenry of Gun Barrel City. It was time to replace the city signs. In the past, the signs had a picture of a long-barreled shotgun, with the caption, "Welcome to Gun Barrel City, We Shoot Straight With You." But all this talk about gang violence and arms-for-hostages and crazed postal workers caused one ol' liberal codger to go plum loony and suggest to the city council that perhaps a picture of a shotgun would send a bad message to the youth of the city. (Gun Barrel is a retirement community, so the "youth" were probably somewhere in their early 60s.) A ruckus ensued, with several folks chasing the liberal into the parking lot and threatening to "git a rope." The last anyone saw of the liberal in Gun Barrel City was his tail lights headed west. We did get a decidedly more friendly sign, though: a shotgun pointed at a heart.
Gun Barrel is once again in the midst of turmoil. Seems this new crop of city council members are doing their level best to stir up some excitement, which can be dangerous to folks with heart conditions. Three council members have decided that they should be able to meet and conduct business any ol' time they get good-n-ready--in their living rooms, at the Catfish Corner, in the express line at the Walmart. Things like that.
The last time they tried their skullduggery, they waited for the mayor to leave town, then called a special session. It didn't take long for a group of ham radio operators who meet every morning at the Dairy Queen (the cultural hot spot of Gun Barrel) to catch wind of it and they quickly rallied and stormed the meeting. The councilmen were so stunned they called in a Texas Ranger and the sheriff's department to protect them from the group of ruffian AARPers. To make matters worse, so many people attended this impromptu meeting that it had to be moved from city hall to the local senior citizen's center, which was holding its weekly Senior's Luncheon. Blue Hairs armed with tomatoes.
The mayor called the citizens a bunch of "pagans" and "heathens," the citizens called the council a bunch of no-account, belly-crawlin', slime-suckin', no-good rascals. A few (including me) set back and called it all entertainment.
The citizens have taken a "pickle jar vote" to determine the future of the city council. One jar reads "Impeach" the other "Lynch" and each citizen could vote with loose change. As it stands, they have collected enough money to hire a lawyer and have filed suit against the council, accusing them of malfeasance, illegal meetings, and general hooey pooey. If that doesn't work, they say lynching is still high on their list of options.
Eyebrows were indeed raised when city administrator, Allan Taylor, found a "bomb" under his van as he headed to work one morning. The bomb was a pickle jar wrapped with nails and filled to the brim with gasoline and a lighted fuse. Some folks think he planted that bomb there himself, pointing out the obvious: country folk use pipe bombs, not pickle jar explosives.
One good thing has come out of all the turmoil in Gun Barrel: people are getting involved in local politics again. So many people attend city council meetings that they are now broadcast by closed-circuit TV in the parking lot. Folks get there hours early just to get a front-row seat. Others bring their lawn chairs and coolers. A petition to fire the city administrator and impeach city council was circulated at the last council meeting and 650 people signed it--over TWICE the amount of folks who voted in the last election.
Though it's sometimes hard being the only openly liberal person living in the Greater Gun Barrel City region of Texas, stories such as this make it bearable. That, and all the praying that is being done in the many churches for my "lost liberal soul."
So I shall wear my scarlet "L" proudly, and report back to you each and every month with another Tale from East Texas.
Carol Countryman is a free-lance troublemaker from Tool, Texas.
THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST