I woke up this morning
Texas on my mind
Thinking about my friends there
And the times I left behind.
Pat Green/”Texas on My Mind”
Lately, I notice current events have become the equivalent of a personal journal reminding me of good times and bad over the course of seven decades. For example, Mary Wilson’s passing brought back memories of seeing the Supremes at the Allentown Fair in 1967. The Baja Marimba Band (with Julius Wechter, who wrote “Spanish Flea” made famous by Herb Alpert) was the opening act. But nothing matches the flood of recollections this past week about our family’s years in Austin, Texas.
Some are minor moments in time with multiple degrees of separation, insignificant in the broader scheme of things. Yesterday’s Washington Post reported two former first daughters, Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush, joined a group that purchased the WNBA Washington Spirit. Current and former residents of Austin cannot see Jenna’s or her twin sister Barbara’s name and not think about the 2001 incident when they, then students at the University of Texas, used false IDs to order drinks at the city’s go-to Tex-Mex restaurant Chuy’s, an establishment we patronized on many occasions. I am sure they were not the first nor the last Longhorns guilty of underage drinking at this cantina known for its paintings on velvet canvas or the wooden pterodactyls hanging from the ceiling. Their particular crime, of course, was being very recognizable presidential offspring.
Of course, this week’s Lone Star State main event was the once in a generation freeze exacerbated by the inexcusable response by Texas governor Greg Abbot and junior U.S. senator Rafael “Ted” Cruz. How do I know it was inexcusable? Personal experience. In April 1983, I was appointed state director of Housing and Community Development by Governor Mark White. On Christmas eve that same year, Texans experienced a similar situation. The high temperature in Austin was seven degrees, two degrees fewer than the previous all time low.
On Christmas Day, several state officials, myself included, were asked to be in the governor’s office at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. As is the case again this week, the entire produce industry in south Texas was devastated, and the unemployment rate along the border was projected to reach 60 percent in the most agricultural counties. Among the resources within my jurisdiction was a $41 million allocation under the federal Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG). As I tell this story, keep in mind my only prior interaction with Governor White had been a brief introduction during my first visit to the capitol as a state employee. He more likely associated me with the letters he received, including one from the city manger of Three Rivers, suggesting “Sam Houston was spinning in his grave” for White’s having hired “a gringo from Washington, D.C. for a job that should have gone to a native Texan.”
As the governor went around the table, he asked each of us what we could do immediately to alleviate the situation. I brought up the CDBG funding and the fact 20 percent was set aside for discretionary and emergency projects. White: “How soon can you start writing checks?” To which I replied I was sorry, but the law required the funds had be used for tangible projects. As I listened to accounts of Abbott’s actions or even New York Governor Andrew Cuomo this week, I wonder what I would have done if White had said, “I don’t give a damn what the law says. Start writing checks or pack you carpet bags and go back to D.C.”
But that was a different time. Instead he reiterated his goal was to get money into the hands of people who needed it. Within 24 hours my team put together a public works program which included everything from repairing government facilities to removing and replacing palm trees along the Rio Grande highway which had not survived the cold. As a result, local governments were able to put thousands of displaced workers on the public payroll for the remainder of that winter.
The memories did not stop there. On Wednesday, the Austin American-Statesman ran a story under the headline, “St. David’s, other hospitals struggle with loss of water pressure, heat.” St. David’s has a special place in our family history. It was at that very hospital our daughter was born in September 1983. Nothing that happened over the next five and a half years could outshine that one moment.
For the fourth memory, I return to the less significant. At a cousin’s recommendation, my wife and I binge-watched the HBO documentary “The Lady and the Dale.” In the final episode, the protagonist G. Elizabeth Carmichael organizes an “army” of street corner flower vendors in Austin. The time period? The mid-1980s, concurrent with our residency there. Our departmental offices were housed in a converted hospital down the block from a major intersection, the corner of West 5th Street and Congress Avenue. Those flower guys were always there, yet we had no idea of the intriguing back story about who they were and how they were recruited.
We left Austin to return to the D.C. area in 1988. And more recent events have displaced our Texas experience over the nearly three and a half decades since we departed. So let me end with a thank you to Jenna Bush, Greg Abbott, Mark White, the staff at St. David’s hospital and Liz Carmichael for jogging my memory of the “friends there and the times I left behind.”
For what it’s worth.