Article — From the February 1970 issue
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The Big Thicket has been a hiding place for bears, wild pigs, panthers, ghosts, Civil War deserters, moonshiners, whooping cranes, ivorybill woodpeckers, Texas’s only reservation Indians, snakes, magnificent stands of hardwoods and virgin pines, so many rare plants that they have hardly begun to be identified, and some very withdrawn, reclusive people. Biologists view the Big Thicket with profound wonder, and ecologists regard its passing with despair. Roy Harris, the heavyweight fighter, came from the town of Cut and Shoot, which used to be in the Big Thicket before the invention of the power saw. Six Texas governors have sprung from the Big Thicket. For many years its tight-eye forests blocked the westward trek of pioneers and forced them onto the plains to the north. But the Indians hunted in canoes in the Thicket’s bayous and knew its few footpaths. Sam Houston intended to hide his Texan army there if he lost the battle that was finally fought at San Jacinto. Not far from what is now the Hoop N’ Holler Estates, weekend cottages for people fleeing Houston and Beaumont, the Indians used to bathe in hot mineral springs and drink crude oil as medicine. The springs are dried up now, panthers are seldom seen, bears wander in confusion as far north as Lufkin, where they are shot trying to escape, and the oil of the Indians has been drilled in dozens of pools that bred boomtowns and formed such giants as Texaco. Senator Ralph Yarborough, a Texas Democrat, is trying to save a piece of the Big Thicket as a National Park, but it is perhaps a vain hope. As much as they may feel blood kin to the woods and streams that have nourished them for generations, most of the people who live in the Big Thicket, and in the rest of East Texas, depend for their livelihood on the industries that are destroying them, and so they vote for candidates chosen by the big companies. “I don’t see how anything can be done about a park, no matter what the Sahara [sic] Club wants,” Representative Dowdy had said earlier in the evening. As a lumberman’s friend, Arch would prefer to see the Thicket leveled. “It’s a hot old swamp, full of bugs and snakes and not fit for man,” he said.
After a while, as we were arguing about the Thicket, it occurred to us that all in the house save Arch and me had gone to bed. The two large ponds out front lay silent in the moonlight. The ducks, geese, pigeons, and peacocks that roam the grounds of the guest lodge had ruffled themselves into a great restless quiet for the night. The squirrels had ceased to dart about in the cage that my wife had wanted to release them from, and there was no sound from the sawmill along the railroad tracks beyond the fence. Now it was just Arch and I, keeping up the noise at the table in the living room of the lodge, and we became congenial, no doubt from the liquor as much as from the sensing that someday, disparate though we were, we might be the only two whose asses were not blown to powder, the only two left alive, as we now were alive on this night.
“I’ll tell you something,” Arch said. “You’re not such a bad fellow. I could learn to live around you, and I could even get used to your hair. But there’s one thing I’ve got to admit. I hope you won’t get mad at me for saying this.”
“Let’s hear it,” I said, having begun to be fond of the old man and finding it unimaginable that he could anger me.
“Well, like I said. I could get used to your hair. But there’s no way in the world I could ever make myself like your wife’s hair.”
My wife’s hair! So that was part of it too! I had assumed the hostility we had encountered in the last few days of driving through East Texas in our convertible was directed at me. But my wife had been receiving her share of it, and maybe more, all along. My wife’s hair! My wife Doatsy is young and pretty and her hair is the color of caramel; it is soft, it shines, it smells like baby soap, and it is long, hanging to the middle of her back, a glorious drop of hair that my grandmother would have been proud of, that young girls of today strive for, and that Arch could never make himself appreciate!
“I’m amazed there is a man in America who objects to long hair on a woman,” I said.
I don’t know what Arch thought I was calling him, but he got up and went to bed, and I could tell he had been insulted. But as I thought of the way we had been treated for the past week, I understood what Arch was telling me. As the beatniks long ago learned, out there in America hair matters, and here we were in the land of the permanent wave. The shellacked bouffants and beehives, sprayed hard as a real hornets’ nest, had become acceptable at last, along with high-heeled shoes, in East Texas, where information does not readily penetrate, but the thing for a real lady still to have was a permanent wave like my mother used to come home with twenty years ago. In East Texas, long-haired women went out of mode with long-haired men, about the time McKinley was shot, and in my big-city naivete I had thought I was the only one being scorned by the natives for disregard of custom in a place where custom means everything.
My hair was not really all that long; it was just rather shaggy, somewhat in the manner of an old-fashioned country lawyer or editor or judge. If I had worn a white cotton suit and black string tie, we probably would have had no trouble at all. In East Texas, the older ones would recognize that character. I would have smelled of the courthouse to them, and they would have been no more curious about me than about the rows of slave shacks that had stood in the fields all their lives, or about the black people who lived in those shacks and worked in those fields as if there had never been a Civil War, or about the black children who still went to black schools as though there were no Supreme Court in this country. To the younger ones, I could have pointed out that my hair was no longer than, say, Pat Moynihan’s in a photograph in the New York Times, but then I would have had to explain who Moynihan was, and in the process I would have bored and annoyed them.
Edwin Shrake a Texan, has written four novels and is finishing a fifth. An associate editor of Sports Illustrated, he divides his time between Austin and New York.
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