In the tight city the pain will linger

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UVALDE — One of the best books about Texas frontier history I’ve come across in recent years is “The Captured,” written by Scott Zesch, a lawyer who grew up in the Hill Country, practices law in New York and still spends time on the family ranch near Mason. Zesch’s book is about Anglo children who were kidnapped by Comanches or Apaches and either resisted capture or found it difficult to readjust if their families managed to get them back. His great-great-great-great-uncle was one of the captured.

Texans who had ventured to the fringes of civilization in the mid-19th century lived in a war zone. In telling the story of the dangers they faced, Zesch describes not only the constant threat of death, but also the untold torture that more than a few colonists endured at the hands of their ruthless enemy. Those who survived the horror often retreated east to the relative safety of Fredericksburg and other settled communities.

Frontier Texas was, indeed, “rough country,” to borrow the title of a book by Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow about efforts to civilize primitive Texas. And yet, far from the fringe of the war zone, Texas has debunked the Old West stereotype. Disease was more of a danger than armed bandits. Raging epidemics of yellow fever and other communicable diseases have killed Texans by the hundreds, a silent death moving from town to town. Wuthnow quotes a Galveston resident in 1867: “The insidious workings of the plague. . . enters each house, and its withering touch strikes the chosen victims, scatters the family circle and paralyzes the remaining mourners for life.

Early Texas certainly had its share of thugs, renegades, and outlaws – probably more than its share – but it’s only today’s Texas, our Texas, that experiences mass shootings in a suburban high school, churches, a Walmart, a military base, the streets of Midland-Odessa, a Luby cafeteria, and a small-town elementary school. Our frontier ancestors, whatever their own labors, would have been appalled in disbelief.

A few days ago, standing in the plaza across from the Uvalde County Courthouse, scanning the handwritten notes on the makeshift memorials surrounding a fountain, I couldn’t fathom what had happened. What happened last week in this pleasant little town just beyond the Hill Country was an act so heinous it is almost impossible to comprehend in the neighborhood less than a mile away.

Neither did Juan Gonzalez, standing next to me in front of the memorial to Eva Mireles, one of two teachers shot and killed while trying to protect the little ones in her class. Gonzalez had driven from Eagle Pass, 60 miles away. “We went to high school together,” he said quietly.

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A mother of a fourth-grade student, her hands resting on the little girl’s slender shoulders, was surrounded by a gaggle of reporters. ” There are no words. Sorry, that’s not enough,” the mother told us. She looked down at her daughter. “She loves school; she never wants to go home,” she said. “It’s his world.”

Every time I make the long drive west from Houston to Big Bend, I get off I-10 in San Antonio and take Highway 90. Small towns along the 90 – Castroville, Hondo , D’Hanis, Sabinal – break the interstate monotony. .

Twenty miles beyond Sabinal, Uvalde, population 17,000, is a small-town respite. With its quaint and well-preserved downtown area, courthouse lawn and plaza shaded by mature pecan trees, it’s beautiful and inviting, with several decent places to eat, a choice of motel chains and, just blocks from houses north of downtown, a leafy neighborhood of eclectic old houses. Well preserved, highlighted by green lawns and tall trees, the houses were probably built by oilmen and ranchers around a century ago.

One of the two-storey houses, made of ocher brick and shaded by old holm oaks, is where one of Uvalde’s two favorite sons lived for many years. John Nance Garner, known as Cactus Jack, was a Speaker of the United States House, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice Speaker during his first two terms, and a potential President himself. Although he was a force in Washington for many years, he is best known for his concise vice-presidential observation. (In the understated version, he supposedly said it wasn’t worth a pitcher of hot spit.)

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In retirement, the salty old politician occasionally sold pecans from his front porch, but on his 95th birthday, he took the time to receive birthday greetings from the President of the United States. The date was November 22, 1963. The president was calling from Fort Worth, minutes before leaving for Dallas.

Today, Garner House is a museum that honors both Garner and Uvalde’s favorite son, Dolph Briscoe, a banker and Uvalde rancher who served two terms as governor in the 1970s. Memories of the two men are fading and the museum is closed for renovations, but Uvalde County Judge Bill Mitchell, elected to Uvalde for 44 years – 32 as a county judge – remembers the two men. Briscoe was both neighbor and mentor.

“He was an exceptionally nice guy,” the judge told me over the phone Saturday morning. “He liked to serve people.

We talked about the town where Mitchell spent most of his life. Founded in 1855 and named Encina, it was renamed Uvalde in 1856 for the Spanish governor Juan de Ugalde. Once the self-proclaimed “honey capital of the world”, Uvalde has always relied on agriculture – cattle, sheep and goats (until the collapse of the mohair industry) and an ambitious mixed salad of winter garden vegetables ( lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers). A first-class rodeo complex attracts high school and college teams from all over the Southwest.

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The area also attracts hunters – deer in season, exotic game all year round – and hunters spill money into the town. Winter Texans call Uvalde their home away from home, not only because of the mild weather, but also because of its proximity to three alluring Hill Country waterways – the Frio, Nueces and Sabinal.

Uvalde is over 60% Hispanic, and yet, as Mitchell says, people of all backgrounds get along well. It’s a tight-knit community. No matter what side of town you live on, no matter what your ethnic background, you most likely know one of the families who are hurting today.

Although the city has its share of poverty, it is busy, active. It’s nothing like small towns in Texas that have lost their purpose.

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As the county judge and I talked about the mundane, I didn’t have to remind him that his beloved hometown is now forever scarred by what happened last week. He knows firsthand what I discovered when I spent nearly a year researching a book about Sutherland Springs, the small town east of San Antonio where a gunman killed 26 Sunday morning worshipers. at the local Baptist church. Survivors and family members move on with their lives—what choice do they have? – but they never get over what happened. I could put away my reporter’s notebook and leave. They could not. Their lingering burdens are emotional, maybe physical, maybe financial. It will therefore be in Uvalde. It has been so in so many communities, in Texas and across the country.

In 1937, a natural gas explosion under a school in the small town of New London, in eastern Texas, killed 300 students and teachers. Eighty-five years later, if you know New London, the explosion is probably the reason.

Still the worst school disaster in American history, New London prompted first the Texas Legislature and then Congress to require natural gas to have an odor, so that a leak could be detected. This simple reform has undoubtedly saved countless lives. Perhaps the tragedy of Uvalde will also cause changes, a renewed determination. Of course, that’s a small consolation – it’s NOT a consolation! — to a grieving city and its broken families.

So the judge and I talked about a city, his city. When it came time to hang up, I tried to tell her how sorry I was. My voice broke. His too. Perhaps for both of us, the faces of these little children swam into view.

We were two middle-aged men. We have seen a lot over the years. Words failed us.

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The Uvalde School Massacre



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