Sunday, December 6, 2009

Faith renewed in San Antone

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- So this is Texas, this American city of great Mexican/Spanish/native Texan heritage, surrounded by hill country and covered by a deeply blue sky. This is not the light of an Edward Hopper urban mood piece or New England landscape but a shower of little, exploding stars that make you squint. Not so much, though, that you can't see the Texan character.

And that is utter honesty, and directness and the most sincere politeness I have ever been gifted with in my life. "Howdy, Podnuh" is inimitable here, whether those actual words are used or not. Good manners is inbred. After this, I will have a difficult time back in my native Northeast.

Texas star figures – metal, wood, in print – are everywhere, just like you see in the old Hollywood movies, and there actually are people here like the film characters at “Reata,” the fictional Texas ranch in the fictional movie "Giant." Rock Hudson and James Dean captured the look, strength, independence and sense of right and wrong as well as other deeply set principles of the Texans I've met and watched in my few days' visit here.

San Antonio proper has its beautiful River Walk, with its sensible and useful links to stores, a museum, the botanical gardens. It makes you realize what's lost in the huge American building of the suburbs and one shopping strip after another that must be reached by car.

There are suburbs here, too, and many shopping strips. Pity the poor traveling salesman, in from Iowa, awakening in Motel 75 on Austin Highway, thinking he was in Secaucus, N.J., or outside Pittsburgh. The Great American Lookalike Anonymity, with its chain stores, is present.

When Ernie Pyle, the great American traveling columnist and later war correspondent, trekked across the nation before World War II, he could not complain of such suburban lookalikeness and instead was able to celebrate more of the local character he found everywhere. And which still exists.

But you must go to the haunts in San Antonio – and elsewhere in the nation – to find them. Well worth the search. In just hours I spotted tall drinks of water in cowboy hats that would not fit heads in New York; drivers who yell "Howdy" to one another instead of cutting each other off; simply no litter at all; conservative politics, such as the sign on the lawn next door to my son Andrew's house in Alamo Heights: "No Socialism," set on a pure black (Mussolini's Black Shirts?) background.

Each of the people I met or watched was a truly interesting character, underscoring and renewing my faith in people in general. Each place I visit and the place where I live my life most of my days have individual characters who make emotions rise and fall, who give you hope and sometimes send you off in despair, who remind you that this America of ours, always of diversity, is one thing most of all: fiercely independent, still the pioneer sort.

Would that those who fashion policy in that non-state called Washington, D.C., understood this. Then the health care snafu – and everything else – would be so much easier to work out.

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