Banks of the Pedrenales
Lyndon Johnson has been dead for 35 years. I travel out to the LBJ ranch every five-ten years to look at his grave and make sure that he is still not among us. Rayda and I went out on Sunday to walk through his newly opened office in his ranch house. It was the first time I had ever been in the house and I have to admit that I really enjoyed it. Rayda seemed to have a good time too. When we speak of long suffering wives, we often thank of golf widows or fishing widows or wives who hear the roar of the crowd on television all day Saturday and All day Sunday every September-January. Rayda’s suffering is different. For years she has had to travel with me, distances long and short, to look at various American Presidential monuments. From New York to D.C. to
Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania to Virginia, Illinois, here in Texas,Tennesse and out to California, she has walked with me to look at various libraries, homes, offices and graves . I can still see her face in the twilight of the day at Arlington Cemetery, searching with me for the grave of William Howard Taft. Greater love hath no woman than she give up part of her vacation to look at the tailor shop of Andrew Johnson, the home of Abe Lincoln’s son Robert Todd or the George H W Bush Library in College Station.
The trip to the ranch is a much shorter trip. But it takes me back to the violent passion of my youth. No one ever hated like I hated Lyndon Johnson. Because he did so much for so many, we tend to forget how America felt when he left office. It was best summed up in the movie “Shampoo” by the actor Jack Warden, who played the cynical rich business man (representing the corrupt establishment of the times) when he uttered offhandedly to Warren Beatty (the hairstylist) on the night of the 1968 election, “God Damn Lyndon Johnson”. That was about the nicest thing I ever said about him.
No one can hate like a teenager, unless it is a teenager of draft age during a miserable and useless war, which I happened to be during the last part of the Johnson and the first part of the Nixon administrations. Even the purity of the moronity of the W administration has not caused the anger I felt back in the old days. I recall Lyndon’s last day in office and just how happy I was to see him go, even if it meant that he was coming back to Texas.
But that hate is all gone now, replaced by sympathy, better understanding and just plain curiosity. The newly opened office brought back a flood of memories of mid-sixties furnishings and decorations. God but it has hideous. They had to tear up a very nice room to bring it back to the schlocky state Lyndon had left it in. Cheap paneling, a large T.V. built into the wall, crummy portrait of the homeowner , phones with six lines, hunting knife, everything but the head of a deer. But I could not get enough of it. I would have lingered for hours if they’d have let me. It is so much more interesting than the Oval Office. This is what the man was like. Here were the tools of his domination of the Western world for five years. Here were the telltale signs of the Texas farm boy from Southwest Texas State Teachers College ,overcompensating so that he could overcome in his own mind the fact that he was not like a Kennedy.
We wandered out toward the river, not even a stone’s throw from his front door. It gives you a sense of place. Here is where a man was from, where he got his values and dreamed his dreams, and where he came home to die. We miss that sense of place today, Whittier, California, Eureka, Illinois, Abilene, Kansas even Hope, Arkansas seem to have all been replaced by the vanilla suburbs of the last half century. I would not go back, I guess, the grinding poverty, hard scrabble soil and the total lack of electricity of the Johnson youth have no appeal to me. Poor is poor and hunger is hunger, no matter how colorful the setting. But places like that could make somebody. They could make a saint, and they could make a monster, depending on your perspective, but they made real men of flesh and blood. I cannot honestly say that we are poorer without them, but I can say that the times are a lot less interesting.