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24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies: Listen to tall tales

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360

I was a straggler to the Sept. 1 meeting of the church of the eternal "wait'll you hear this ..."

I arrived somewhere around the middle of the "deer eats bird, horse eats rat" tall tale contest between Alton Phillips and Horace Gore, where the first liar never has a chance and the truth has less chance than that.

Tall and round-faced, Phillips is sporting a grizzled mustache shaded by a gimme cap. Shorter and thinner with a gray beard, Gore is sitting in the scant shade of a truck bed. Both elders in this fraternity, they were going at it big-time: "... ‘I'm telling you I saw it,' and ‘... That ain't nothing compared to what I witnessed. ...' "

I'd been cleaning doves, so when I arrived, the gaggle of guys standing around the pickups and sitting in lawn chairs on the flatbed trailer began urging Gore and Phillips back to the beginning of their epic match.

"Tell Leggett what you just told us," they said. There was lots of grinning and spitting going on.

Welcome to number 22 on my list of "24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies" — stand around a truck or a campfire or the oil change bay of a service station and just listen to the stories. This is the 20th Century version of the talking rock, a place where people meet to swap stories, cuss the government and lament teenage loves, both lost and found.

In the 21st Century, Twitter and e-mail have endangered face-to-face conversation, and I think something has been lost, even though the results are more immediate. My friend Fred Bryant recently told me of the death of another friend in a car accident. He did it in a text message. And my daughter, Casey, sent pictures of her new Labradoodle puppy, Elsie.

I prefer the old-fashioned, face-to-face story, and voice inflections and facial tics that help separate the truth from the tale.

This stop on my list is inspired by the Jerry Jeff Walker song, "Keep Texas Beautiful," and I still can't read the words out loud without a catch in my voice and a knot in my throat.

"So in my dreams I'm driving home, I can see my daddy's face;

"He's standing by the live oak tree in our yard on Canyon Lake;

"And I'm driving under miles and miles of clear blue Texas skies;

"Some strangers in a pickup truck, turn and wave as I drive by."

Standing around a truck telling stories. That's such an important part of our heritage and history in Texas. The centerpiece doesn't have to be a truck. It can be a pot of cafe coffee, where town leaders really make decisions, or a bench outside the courthouse where old men meet up in their khakis and Stetsons (canes are required) to solve the problems of the day.

I still recall my first pickup meeting. I'm 7 or 8 years old and playing with a friend in his yard next door to Jack Shadowens' store in DeBerry. Someone — maybe Leroy Wise, because I know he was there — pulls up at the store and everybody starts coming out to look in the back of the truck.

I make it over there because I can sense something good is up, and I climb up on the bumper to see a giant rattlesnake — a big old timber rattler — lying stretched out in the bed. His belly is cut open, and there's a full grown fox squirrel, as dead as the rattler, bulging out through the slit.

I didn't know it then, but I was about to be initiated into the church of the eternal "wait'll you hear this ..."

"That's pretty good," one parishioner said, "but that ain't nothing. I saw a rattlesnake charm a squirrel one time. Just sat there and charmed him right up to him, hypnotized him and then bit him dead, almost walked right into his mouth. It was horrible. I hope I never see anything like that again."

Many years later, I was in a cubbyhole of a gas station in Johnson City, watching four guys engaged in a furious game of cutthroat dominoes. They were slapping the bones down on a slick table, the noise of the rocks like rifle shots on a cement floor.

And they've got this running commentary going on, well, everything in life. Like those Russians, one of the players was saying as I paid my bill.

"That's nothing compared to what the Russians got." A slight pause. He was younger than the rest but seemed to have an air of authority to which everyone else deferred.

"They've got a bomb — it's called the Destructo Bomb — where they drill a hole down a couple of miles deep in the earth and drop the bomb down in that hole."

I lingered, because I wanted to hear how this would end.

There were a few grumbles about the "damned Russkies," then he said, "They set the bomb off down there, and it starts a vibration that'll destroy the whole world."

After the briefest moment for somber reflection, he slapped down a five-point play and concluded: "It works, too. They tested it."

Back to present day and Horace Gore, who rises to the challenge. "I was jist sayin' that I saw uh deer eatin' a blue jay th'other day."

"And I said I could beat that," Phillips countered. "I watched a horse eatin' a rat. That's no joke. I saw it with my own eyes. He stomped that rat and ate it. You could hear the bones crunching."

That's it. I'm out of here. I can't compete with that.

As I tuck my hunting vest in the back of my truck, Phillips is saying the horse probably ate the rat in self-defense because the rodents were downright belligerent and close to possum-sized, too.

"Those rats were tough," Phillips says. "We used to hide out there and shoot them with pellet rifles. That was when they'd come out of the barn and stand up at the water trough to get a drink of water."

And so it goes.

As Mark Twain wrote: "Now then, that is the tale. Some of it is true."

mleggett@statesman.com