A newsman tips his 10-gallon hat to the Lone Star State

In Texas, fire-ant festivals and rattlesnake roundups are weekend entertainment, and many customers bring their own knives to eat barbecue.

He's all sizzle and no steak. All hat and no cattle. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Old-time Texans have a barnful of metaphors to describe their politicians. For a writer, these salty comments are a godsend. When muttered as an aside, they brighten up the dullest story, turning gray shapeless suits into real characters who are just as likely to slap you on the back as they are to stab you there.

It's just one aspect of Texas reporting that I'll miss terribly. After three years as Southwest bureau chief (translation: "reporter"), I'm moving on to a post in that other hot dusty foreign country with spicy food and poisonous snakes: India.

People wonder how I'll handle such an exotic place. I tell them Texas has been plenty exotic, thank you.

Consider Texas politics. The most recent brawl in the Texas Legislature, back in 1974, was described by longtime columnist Molly Ivins as having Democrats and Republicans and other lawmakers hurling insults and fists in the hallowed House chamber, as four legislators sang a barber-shop-quartet tune atop the podium.

In short, Texas is a piece of work.

Visit some barbecue joints, and you might not be offered silverware, because most patrons bring their own pocketknives. Some places still have knives chained to the wall, as a courtesy for the unprepared.

Take a look at the local festivities on any given weekend, and you'll know you're not in Kansas. There are fire-ant festivals, goat-barbecue festivals, and rattlesnake roundups. Menudo cookoffs can be found in almost every sizable town in the state.

Then there's that Austin curiosity called "Eeyore's Birthday." Every spring, at the Vernal Equinox, hundreds of local hippies gather to sing, beat congas, and sway like kelp, all in an attempt to help A.A. Milne's fictional donkey lighten up. Austin always was a bit different.

Even the names of towns indicate that Texans see themselves as larger-than-life. There's Cut and Shoot, Point Blank, and Gun Barrel City; there's also Jollyville, Humble, Comfort, and Loving, the latter of which regularly has the lowest murder rate in Texas. Some places have unsentimental names, such as Sour Lake. Others, like Grandfalls - which has no river, let alone falls - require a certain stretch of the imagination.

Granted, the charm of Texas is not always apparent right away. Some newcomers bristle at the curious Texas drawl, which has a habit of transforming names like Kim into "Kee-yim," and the letter W into a down-home "dubya."

But there's something about Texas that digests even the toughest jerky. At Willie Nelson's annual Fourth-of-July picnic, for instance, you'll see that prototypical Yankee car - the Volvo sedan - sitting next to Ford pickups, while Californians mix with self-described "rednecks" in the closest thing that Texas has to a love-in.

Some locals fret that the recent influx of newcomers, drawn by the booming high-tech industry, will turn Texas into everywhere else, and nowhere in particular. There's no question of the growth. Demographers say that within a decade, the triangle of countryside from Dallas to San Antonio to Houston will be as densely populated as the East Coast is today.

Daunting stuff, especially for a state where buffalo and cattle once outnumbered people on the wide open prairie.

But there's something about the Lone Star State that tells me not to worry. Someone's going to make a fortune selling all those people barbecue.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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