Texas Germans, Cactus Smuggling And Other Adventures In the Lower Deserts

I had been planning to head straight across Texas to El Paso with a detour south to Big Bend state park which sits on the north bank of the Rio Grande, also passing through Marfa which used to, maybe still does, feature Rock Hudson’s house in Giant, then coming north again to the Balmorhea springs, with beautiful stone work done by the CCC in the 1930s. I was there years, in 1988, while driving a 1960 Plymouth Valiant across country. But this July it was ferociously hot and though the 62 Plymouth station wagon was running well, its venerable air conditioning more than satisfactory, I didn’t fancy the thought of breaking down in the middle of the Cuesta de Burro mountains. So, prior to the visit to Midland described last week, I headed north west for the Texas hill country, the region of the Pedernales often associated with the ranch and memory of LBJ, and an hour later found myself in Fredericsburg, which offers the curious traveler not only the Admiral Nimitz museum of the Pacific War, plus the George H. Bush Gallery, but also a profusion of German restaurants, each displaying meat-heavy, schlag-strewn menus in the broiling Texan forenoon.

Consulting a copy of Roemer’s Texas I found in the public library in Midland I found out why. This same Friedrich von Roemer is noted as the father of Texan geology, hence grandfather of the delighted cries of Texan oilmen whenever the geology of Texas yielded its proper bounty. In 1845 Roemer visited Texas and published an excellent account of his explorations four years later, correctly deprecating most previous writings on the state as “crude untruths and fabulous exaggerations”. I was glad to see that Roemer reserved particular venom for Captain Marryat, author of such nineteenth works of boys’ fiction as the loathsome Masterman Ready and The Children of the New Forest. In 1839 Marryat published A Diary in America, derided by Roemer as either the author’s exaggerations or, in the case of the few facts, plagiarized without acknowledgement from others. “The reader,” Roemer sniffed, “can look for everything else in the book except the true state of affairs as to the natural conditions of Texas”.

The big German drive to colonize Texas came in the 1840s, with a company, or “Verein” set up for this purpose in Mainz. A hundred and fifty families were each guaranteed 320 acres and set sail. Disaster followed. The Verein had been sold 450 square miles of Texas real estate by a Frenchman called Bourgeois d’Orvanne, but the German settlers found to their mortification that the Frenchman was a con man and owned not a single acre. This crisis was only solved when the Verein’s man on the spot, Prince Carl zu Solms-Braunfels bought several thousand acres on the road from San Antonio to Austin, establishing the city of New Braunfels.

Captivated by the Verein’s pledges of land, a fresh wave of immigrants, several thousand in number, arrived in Galveston in the spring of 1846, only to find that the Verein had no money to transport them to the site of the future city of Fredericsburg. Alternately broiled by the savage sun or drenched by the unusual rains of that year the wretched Germans lay on the sandy coast in sod houses or tents. Malaria began to decimate them and war with Mexico broke out. With nothing better to do, the settlers formed a volunteer corps to fight for Texas.

At last they began the trek to New Braunfels. “The course along the Guadalupe,” Roemer wrote mournfully three years later, “was marked by countless German graves. All moral ties were dissolved and the prairie was witness to deeds of violence, from which the natural feelings revolt and which sullied the German name.” More than a thousand died, and with them the German drive for colonization. Nonetheless when LBJ was a kid many high schools in that region were teaching in German, a good example of the foolishness of the faction demanding that English be the sole language.

The Fredericsburg inspected by Roemer still had tree stumps in its streets and one of the settlers chopping down oak trees was no doubt the forebear of Chester Nimitz, admiral in overall charge of the war in the Pacific, in whose honor a fine museum now offers Fredericsburg’s prime historical amenity. Actually, the George H. Bush gallery is a very fine addition to Texas’s excellent museums, with huge dioramas of carrier flight decks, Japanese mini-subs and a faithful recreation of Tojo’s study.

In the South church signs are more urgent than those further west. In Louisiana, on a chapel in Abbeville I saw “Each time Satan knocks, let Jesus answer the door.” In the southwest things seem more relaxed. On the way out of Texas into New Mexico I pass a sign for Central Baptist Church with a sign “Relax I’m in control, God, Philippians 4, 6.” Later I look this up in the King James translation of the Bible to see what was offered as biblical authority for this soothing admonition. Verse 6 says “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known unto God.” This is the slightly older meaning of careful, in the sense of anxiety, as opposed to the more modern intimation of the word, of caution.

From the balcony of the Carlsbad Motel, I can see the signs on the back of a long building the other side of the fence read Leopard Lounge Caf?, Got Furniture and Structured Chaos. Nauseated by the disgusting food in a nearby franchise I eat the remainder of my boiled crabs, and next day head north to Artesia, soon enough espying the Chaos Caf?. Inside a sign said “If you think you have a reservation, you’re in the wrong place” and a longer sign in the entry way offered the thought “If it is true that remodeling and effective cleaning require disarray, and if we want change and purity in our lives, and if we have asked JESUS to bring growth, Why are we surprised and dismayed when the process begins with CHAOS.”

Across the Guadeloupe mountain range and down into Alamogordo, 60 miles south of the Trinity site, point zero for explosion of America’s first nuclear device. It’s hard to drive far across the American West without passing a military base or a prison. I drive into White Sands National Monument, which is surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range, some 4,000 square miles of desert which hosted America’s first efforts to adapt German rockets, with Nazi scientists toiling happily in their new homes, spirited westward by the same US intelligence services that extricated Klaus Barbie and sent him to Bolivia. One such scientist was Georg Richkey who was the supervisor at the Mettelwerk missile complex that used slave labor from the Dora concentration camp. In retaliation against sabotage in the plant (prisoners would piss on electrical equipment, causing spectacular malfunctions) Richkey would hang them twelve at a time from factory cranes, with wooden sticks shoved into their mouths to muffle their cries. Later US intelligence officers obstructed efforts by the allies, also the US State Department, to try Richkey as a war criminal and brought him to the US where he resumed his missile work at Wright AFB.

I drove for a while through the white gypsum dunes which constitute the prime allurement of the Monument, whose best feature is actually the adobe reception and office buildings designed and put up by Hispanic laborers under the supervision of a Kansa journalist had successfully campaigned for the Monument in the 1930s. The buildings are now deservedly on the register of historic structures. That evening I drive along the main street of Truth or Consequences. I notice that the South West Pharmacy has a sign below it, Ask Us About Free Prozac. Below that is another sign for the Wellness Store “A Neural Pharmacy”

Across the street I see the hot Springs Health Center. I pick the Trail motel ($24, good wide front court, nice sign, Christians, no phone in the room.)

As for the town’s name, I’d always imagined it came from some cowboy bet in the 1880s. Not a bit of it. In 1950, so the Chaparral Guide in my motel told me, NBC TV and radio producer Ralph Edwards took the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his program Truth or Consequences to put out the word that he wished “some town in the US liked and respected our show so much that it would like to change its name to Truth or Consequences”. The Mexico State Bureau of tourism promptly relayed his hope to the manager of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce. At long last an opportunity to shake off the town’s second best status to Hot Springs Arkansas, playpen of Boy Clinton. In a special election 1294 of the citizenry voted for the change with 294 opposed. Amid cries from the vanquished traditionalists there was soon a second poll with the same result. The people were asked to voted again on the matter in 1964 and yet again in 1967, which suggests the diehards were still fighting.

I have another disgusting meal in La Coquina, probably the worst effort at “Mexican” chow I’ve ever encountered, which is saying a lot, starting with ketchup pretending to be salsa.

The next day, deliberating on a back road whether to make a detour and visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings I finally decide it’s too late and swing back onto a larger road. Red lights promptly go on and I see a state patrol car with two cops in it. After a long interval during which they check me out, a young cop comes over and leans through the passenger window. He alleges I rolled past a red stop sign and then asks me what I’m doing in this part of New Mexico. His ferretty little eyes swivel around the back of the station wagon, linger on some cactuses I’ve picked up in a nursery in Truth or Consequences, linger further on my Coleman ice chest and then came back to my car papers. Either this is a training session for Ferret Eyes or a pretext stop to see if I’m carrying drugs. Armed with my license and car papers the two spend another 20 minutes on their radio. Finally Ferret Eyes comes back and lays a $49 citation on me, inquiring as to whether I plead guilty as charged or want to fight it out in the courts. This all seems hurried and devoid of due process, but I tell him I won’t fight it. I roll on my way, soured on New Mexico.

In contrast to the carefree posture of the Baptists, leaving God to sort it all out, the signs outside high schools mostly flaunt the worry-ridden “Have a safe summer” until I get to Globe, NM, a mining town on state highway 70, whose high school sign dares to say, Have a happy summer”.

Fear is everywhere. Various newspapers in the south west, were carrying a news story alerting us to the perils of charred steak or chicken, now listed along with mothballs, and shampoos as among the 218 substances suspected by the National Institute of Envior4nmental Health Sciences of causing cancer. As the health group’s director, Christopher Portier concedes, “Anything that’s fun tends to be hazardous to your health.” So we’re enjoined not to cook steak or chicken over heat in excess of 400 degrees. Trouble is, the USDA simultaneously implores us to turn up the broiler to full power to avoid the supposed perils of underdone meat, possible sanctuary of lethal bacteria. Barbecue is probably the only way for carnivores to go.

Mines, Prisons and Cacti

I stood alongside two Mexican tourists looking through a chainlink fence at an enormous hole in the ground. Somewhere near the New Mexico/Arizona line it was maybe half a mile across and easily as deep, though the clarity of the air could have been deceiving and the whole void could have been a cubic mile. There’s nothing like an open-pit mine to remind you of what man, in this instance the Phelps Dodge Company, will do in the great cause of making a buck, and though there was no signing of active digging in progress I’ve no doubt that some twitch in the price of copper or whatever else it was Phelps Dodge had been gouging out of that hole could have sent the big cutting machines into action once more.

We could see the geology in cross section, layered green, dark blue, red and sandy white as, somewhere back in ur-time, the various strata had heaved and settled themselves in a arrangement that half a billion years later proved most satisfactory to the stockholders of Phelps Dodge, a company of infamous repute, not least for its curt command to that despicable invertebrate known as Bruce Babbitt to bring out the State Troopers to break a strike.

Only a few days earlier, back in Alabama, I’d been reading a terrifying story in the Wall Street Journal, a truly brilliant and important piece of historical research by a WSJ reporter called Douglas Blackmon, into the way US companies, including units of US Steel, had contracted with the state of Alabama to recruit cheap prison labor to dig coal, notably at the Pratt mining complex outside Birmingham. The total number of those sent into the mines over the 60-year span of the system probably far exceeded 100,000.

The reporter had the temerity to note that in June a $4.5 billion fund set up by German corporations began making payments last month to the victims of Nazi slave-labor programs during the 1930s and 1940s and that Japanese manufacturers now face demands for compensation for their alleged use of forced labor during the same period.

Maybe the profiteers from mines in Shelby County, Alabama should face some questions too and victims or their offspring be vindicated. “In the U.S., many companies — real-estate agents that helped maintain rigid housing segregation, insurers and other financial-services companies that red-lined minority areas as off-limits, employers of all stripes that discriminated in hiring — helped maintain traditions of segregation for a century after the end of the Civil War. But in the U.S., recurrent calls for reparations to the descendants of pre-Civil War slaves have made little headway. And there has been scant debate over compensating victims of 20th century racial abuses involving businesses.”

Most of the convicts condemned to the coal mines in Shelby county were charged with minor offenses or violations of “Black Code” statutes passed to reassert white control in the aftermath of the Civil War. “Subjected to squalid living conditions, poor medical treatment, scant food and frequent floggings, thousands died. Entries on a typical page from a 1918 state report on causes of death among leased convicts include: ‘Killed by Convict, Asphyxia from Explosion, Tuberculosis, Burned by Gas Explosion, Pneumonia, Shot by Foreman, Gangrenous Appendicitis, Paralysis.’

The system was simplicity itself. The sheriffs and guards made their living off commissions on supplying the black convict labor, also by pocketing the difference between the food money they were allocated and the slops they actually dished out to the convicts. The pretexts for arrests were trivial or non-existent, such as being rowdy, riding the rails, looking at a white woman (unless the glance was of a quality that required a lynching). Fines were imposed and since the blacks had no money, the men were sent to the coal mines instead, with years added on to cover “court costs”. What followed was most often a prolonged death sentence, by dint of overwork, starvation and then sickness, unless the process was speeded up by being beaten to death with a pickax handle by one of the guards.

Some Alabama officials in the late nineteenth century were horrified. At the Pratt Mines an observer for a special Alabama legislative committee in 1897 wrote a report describing 1,117 convicts, many “wholly unfit for the work,” at labor in the shaft. The men worked standing in pools of putrid water. Gas from the miners’ headlamps and smoke from blasts of dynamite and gun powder choked the mine. The convict board’s death registers show that in the final decade of the 19th century, large numbers of men died when diarrhea and dysentery periodically swept through the Pratt Mines. Citing inadequate food, beatings of miners and unsanitary conditions, state inspectors periodically issued reports criticizing the mine’s operators, initially Pratt Coal & Coke Co. and later Tennessee Coal, which acquired Pratt Coal in the late 1800s.

Men were priced depending on their health and their ability to dig coal. Under state rules adopted in 1901, a “first class” prisoner had to cut and load into mine cars four tons of coal a day to avoid being whipped. That’s 8,000 pounds, maybe three or four times the weight of a Volkswagen. As revenue from the lease system rose, companies took over nearly all the penal functions of the state. Since they had to pay a penalty to the state of Alabama if any prisoner escaped, company guards were empowered and had ample incentive to shoot prisoners attempting to flee and, well into the 20th century, to strip disobedient convicts naked and whip them.

“The demand for labor and fees has become so great that most of them now go to the mines where many of them are unfit for such labor; consequently it is not long before they pass from this earth,” wrote Shirley Bragg, president of the Board of Inspectors of Convicts, in a September 1906 report to Alabama’s governor. “Is it not the duty of the State to see that proper treatment is accorded these poor defenseless creatures, many of whom ought never have been arrested and tried at all?” Such protests notwithstanding, the system continued.

U.S. Steel bought Tennessee Coal in 1907. U.S. Steel Chairman Elbert H. Gary, after whom the Indiana steel town is named, was a man of progressive reputation. He commanded his subordinates that association of US Steel or its subsidiaries with the penal system of Alabama should cease. It didn’t. That same year 50 black convicts set fire to the mine in an attempt to escape and many were suffocated or roasted alive. One executive noted that U.S. Steel’s “chief inducement for the hiring of convicts was the certainty of a supply of coal for our manufacturing operations in the contingency of labor troubles.”

Any governor of Arizona has as one of his prime functions the provision of cheap water, transported at public expense, for the big real estate and agricultural interests of the state. That night, ensconced in my Days Inn in the little south-eastern Arizona town of Safford, I was able to gaze at the great cotton fields surrounding the town as they have for decades now, with the abundant water sloshing through the ditches. Over on the south-east horizon was Mount Graham, sacred to the Apache and sanctuary to the endangered red squirrel, both of which attributes are being swiftly destroyed by the mighty telescopes installed with the vehement support of Senator John McCain, also the Vatican which endorsed the telescopes as vital for the search of the cosmos for further possible converts to Christendom.

Along state highway 70 I rolled next day through Globe and on route 60, its nearby satellite of Miami, where one is afforded a definitive vignette of the role on environmental regulation, in the form of a vast, awful mine, like a cross between something out of Caspar Friedrich and a Fritz Lang nightmare; a mountain of shale, its base oozing green puss, topped by a mining building, the whole thing a thousand feet high, and right at the bottom, next to the highway a tiny shack labeled “Environmental Compliance” and next to this the cryptic sign, “Zero and Beyond”.

Then came more mines and astounding red rock, sandstone formations and then, ten minutes later, the other side of the range, a sign for the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. I rolled right past it and then, always a sucker for gardens and arboreta, made a U and went in. So glad I did, since these 1,075 acres of the Sonoran desert nestling at the base of Picketpost mountain now comprise one of the premier horticultural attractions of the country, for which we can thank William Boyce Thompson and, no doubt, Mrs Thompson.

He was a mining engineer from Montana, who made his pile figuring out where to dig some of the big holes I had been gazing at a few minutes earlier. Flush with income from the Inspiration Consolidated Copper Company at Globe-Miami Thompson won his honorary title of “colonel” by leading a Red Cross expedition to Russia in 1917. As he marched across the arid Asian steppes towards St Petersburg the colonel became mightily impressed not only by the extreme hunger he witnessed on all sides but also by the fact that what little food the locals had often came from plants. All foods, the colonel suddenly appreciated, comes originally from plants. Back in Arizona he swiftly laid plans for an arid land arboretum where plants from the world’s deserts could be brought together, their uses assayed and their seeds distributed. Work began in 1923 and by 1929 it was up and running as a joint project of the Arboretum, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Civilian Conservation Corps. These days there are over 3000 different plants flourishing at Boyce Thompson and among the beneficiaries of the Colonel are sperm whales, a substitute for whose oil is the oil pressed from seeds of the desert jojoba bush, now planted on a large scale in Arizona.

I wandered about in the 105 degree heat and soon saw in the distance the tapering trunk, some 35 feet high, of Idria columnaris, otherwise known as the Boojum, whose erroneous identification proved so fatal to the baker in Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece of the comic, yet uncanny, the Hunting of the Snark. All around were marvelous cacti and kindred succulents such as euphorbias and agaves.

A few years ago I tried to collect orchids and swiftly realised that the cost and effort involved is kindred to living with a series of petulant film stars. Orchids are never happy, are always complaining. This year I shifted to cacti and have been a happy man. Water and feed them every four weeks or so and they repay you with an attractive presence, plus wonderful blooms once or twice a year. If they suffer, it’s a silent and, at least in the short term, invisible pain.

The arboretum, which must be a particular miracle to visit in the spring when the desert is in bloom, has many interesting cacti for sale and I loaded up the ’62 Plymouth station wagon, which was already freighted with cacti and a Madagascar Palm I’d bought in Truth or Consequences.

I headed west through Phoenix, then onto Interstate 10 towards Blythe, California. Beside the highway ran the power lines and I thought of that great son of the desert, Edward Abbey, and his malediction in the Monkey Wrench Gang: “All this fantastic effort ? giant machines, road networks, strip mines, conveyor belt, pipelines, slurry lines, loading towers, railway and electric train, hundred-million-dollar coal-burning power plant; ten thousand miles of high-tension towers and high-voltage power lines; the devastation of the landscape, the destruction of Indian homes and Indian grazing lands, Indian shrines and Indian burial grounds; the poisoning of the last big clean-air reservoir in the forty-eight contiguous United States, the exhaustion of precious water supplies ? all that ball-breaking labor and all that back-breaking expense and all the heartbreaking insult to land and sky and human heart, for what? All for what? Why, to light the lamps of Phoenix suburbs not yet built, to run the air conditioners of San Diego and Los Angeles, to illuminate shopping-center parking lots at two in the morning, to power aluminum plants, magnesium plants, vinyl-chloride factories, and copper smelters, to charge the neon-tubing that makes the meaning (all the meaning there is) of Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Tucson, Salt Lake City, the amalgamated metropoli of southern California, to keep alive that phosphorescent petrifying glory (all the glory there is left) called Down Town, Night Time, Wonderville, U.S.A.”

A few yards after the Colorado river there was a checkpoint staffed by the California dept of Agriculture. A tough looking fellow took one glance through the window of my station wagon at the cacti within and demanded proof of origin and purchase. Fortunately I managed to find a tag from the Arboretum, but he wasn’t entirely satisfied, pointing at the Madagascar palm and saying it looked as though I’d dug it up myself. Finally he let me through and I went off down the interstate wondering whether the big cactus smugglers used geezers in old station wagons as mules to shift product.

Next days I remarked on the fierce inspection to young Rick, who runs an excellent little roadside cactus store at Four Corners, where 58 crosses 395 and he told me that all cacti in the US are protected, and indeed gangs do dig them up in the desert for later sale. A substantial saguaro can cost hundreds of dollars. When the Arizona highways dept has to move a cactus the road crews will tag it, sell it to a dealer who can then legally put it up for sale. He told me I was lucky to have got my plants through, even though their papers were basically in order. Then he started cursing as, from behind a trailer in the Arco station down the road a helicopter rose noisily. Four Corners consists of about six gas stations and apparently the local county bureaucracy agreed with the complaint of the Arco man that Rick’s cactus store constitutes an eyesore, since it has green, living things for sale. He’s having to move round the corner where the truckers and tourists racing along 58 towards Tehachapi and Bakersfield won’t be distracted by offensive flora.

Drive through interior California and you drive past prisons. In Adelanto the mother and daughter who ran the local Days Inn told me that they already had two in town, one state and one federal, and were scheduled for three more. Higher up Interstate 5 you pass Avenal and Coalinga, with others over the horizon. In San Jose the headlines spoke of further implosion in the e-markets. Hewlett Packard was set to lay off thousands worldwide. I chugged up through the wine country and into Humboldt county and in mid-afternoon, 4000 miles, and ten days after I left Landrum, SC, having needed only one quart of oil and having established an average of 17mpg, the ’62 Plymouth Belvedere swung into my yard in Petrolia. Five minutes later two F-14s, or maybe F-18s flew down the tiny valley 500 feet, amid a deafening roar. “The sound of freedom”, they used to call it. These were pilots being assholes. I watched my horses jump about four feet in the air. A mile down river, Margie Smith’s old horse jumped too, wounded itself on a fence post and bled to death. CP

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.