Saturday, March 27, 2010

Here’s A Place That’s Definitely Worth Visiting

There are so many great places to eat in Austin and the Texas Hill Country that it is impossible to visit them all, however, that should not stop anyone from trying. Many of these places, especially outside of Austin, serve the traditional local fare associated with the area. That means barbecue, beef brisket, chicken fried steak, Mexican, Tex-Mex, catfish and German food. There is nothing wrong with any of those selections of course, but sometimes you might want something a little different.

If you are in downtown Austin, or on South Congress or South Lamar in South Austin, that is not going to be a problem. There are plenty of eateries in those areas that will provide the eclectic culinary experience you may be looking to enjoy. That’s great for folks living or working close to those areas. But for those living or working in North Austin, or in the communities just north of Austin, that’s quite a drive.

They say that “necessity is the mother of invention.” When the owner of Leo’s Gyros & Beef moved down from Chicago not long ago, and opened his restaurant in Cedar Park, he was the “invention” filling the “need” of those living and working in the northern reaches of the Austin area that were looking for diverse food selections. And, if I might add, what an invention it is.

The challenge at Leo’s, is deciding what to order. It’s one of those places that have so many selections, that it’s hard to decide what to get. Yesterday, I had originally gone in to just get a Chicago Style Hot Dog. As it turned out, I got that Chicago dog, but also a Chicago Style Polish, a couple of falafels, and fries. If you are familiar with real “Chicago Street Food,” you will instantly appreciate this place, not only because it has all the familiar street selections under one roof, but also because they are all authentic and delicious.

Leo’s menu is so diverse that I will not be able to do it justice here, but it is very extensive. In addition to authentic Chicago style food, there is something for everyone. There is an unbelievably large selection of appetizers, sides, soups, salads, hamburgers, and other sandwiches, including Rubens, BLT’s, Philly Cheese Steak, and catfish. There are also offerings of shrimp, oysters, and chicken. As you would expect, kid’s meals are also available. But the real attractions at Leo’s are the Chicago dogs, pita sandwiches including gyros, falafel, and the shishkebab plates. This food is the real stuff, and it is delicious. Best of all, the owner warmly greets each and every customer, and makes sure that the food is to their liking.

Conveniently located on U.S. Route 183, just south of RM 1431 in Cedar Park, the restaurant provides those people living just north of Austin the same wide-ranging food choices more commonly found in Austin itself. No matter where you live in the Austin area, however, this is one place that’s definitely worth visiting.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Once Again, The Texas Wildflowers Are Blooming

Northern states are in the spotlight every fall, when the leaves on the trees turn bright and vivid colors. Springtime, however, is the time when the Texas Hill Country shines. For it is in this time of year when the famous hill country wildflowers bloom, and, once they are seen, they are never forgotten.

There are over 45 types of wildflowers found in the hill country. The species of flowers bloom at different times, but most bloom sometime between March and June. Of the most popular wildflowers, Bluebonnets and Texas Paintbrush are the early bloomers, as they usually show their best colors from March through April. Indian Blankets typically bloom a little later, with April and May being peak months. But, if you’re driving around the hill country anytime between March and June, or, perhaps a tad bit later, you’re going to see some type of wildflower, and plenty of them.

Last month, in February, there were a few early and sporadic sightings of Bluebonnets. A few weeks ago, the sightings began picking up significantly. Today, the fields of color are beginning to break out all over. Several days ago I drove down a road and didn’t see a single flower, but when I drove that same road today, I saw thousands of Bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, and other wildflowers.

The experts say that this is going to be a banner year for wildflowers in Texas, as it always is following a wet fall and winter. From early indications, they seem to be right. One thing is for sure, if you’ve always dreamed about seeing the colorful wildflowers in the hill country of Texas, this is a great year to make that dream come true.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Time To Celebrate: Lake Travis Is Full And The Current Drought Is Officially Over

Yesterday, the water level of Lake Travis rose above 681 feet above mean sea level (msl) for the first time since the fall of 2007, after dropping below 630 feet msl in late September of last year. The El Nino weather pattern is what normally brings Texas out of its recurring historical droughts, and the El Nino of the last 6 months was no exception, raising the level of Lake Travis over 51 feet since its lowest water level during the current drought.

The full pool of the lake, and the end of the drought, is great news and certainly cause for celebration in the Texas Hill Country. Last summer, the low lake level closed most, if not all, of the lake’s public boat ramps. This had a negative financial impact on businesses along the lake, including marinas, waterfront restaurants, music venues, hotels, and tourist rental properties. Equally bad, “sometimes islands” appeared on the lake, causing accidents and injuries, especially among boaters unfamiliar with the lake. And, residents across the hill country, dealt with the watering restrictions common in times of drought.

This year will be much different. Currently, the lake level is 10 feet above what the level would normally be during a typical March. Businesses along all of the Highland Lakes, including Lake Travis, will no doubt thrive this year, but, then again, this is Texas, the land of feast or famine. Texans in the hill country have learned how to adapt to fast changing weather and climate over the years. One year’s prosperity might bring something quite different the next year. We’ve seen it all before, and, many times.

But, given the current conditions, it is time to celebrate the “feast” of a full lake and the end of the current drought. I will enjoy it while I can, because Texas weather history tells me, it won’t last forever.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

As They Say In Texas, “I Told You That Story To Tell You This One”

Fess Parker passed away last week in Southern California. Although he was born and raised in Texas, and graduated from the University of Texas in Austin, he spent most of his adult life living in California. In his later years, he ran a resort and a winery, but it was his early years that the baby boomers remember most, when, as a television and movie actor, he played both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. I remember both of my older brothers wearing the coonskin cap he made famous during those years. But, as they say here in Texas, I told you that story to tell you this one.

There are two movies that are similar, and which baby boomers watched countless times growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. One movie was The Yearling, based on the book with the same name, written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The other movie was Old Yeller, based on the book with the same name, written by Fred Gipson.

The books, and the movies they spawned, are both about boys coming of age in the rural South in the years following the American Civil War. In the book and movie, The Yearling, a boy is growing up in rural Florida, and, in the book and movie, Old Yeller, a boy is growing up in the rural hill country of Texas. In both of the books and the movie renditions, the boy of the story becomes attached to an animal, and, in the end, due to unforeseen circumstances, he is forced to kill it. Both Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Fred Gipson wrote about what they knew. Rawlings grew up in rural Florida, and Gipson in the hill country of Texas. In both cases, these rural locations were central to their stories.

Fred Gipson was born in the Texas Hill Country’s Mason County in 1908, and grew up on a farm there. After graduating from high school, he briefly attended the University of Texas, but soon left to write for newspapers and magazines. Eventually, he began writing books. Among the many books he wrote, Old Yeller became a classic. Now, once again, I told you that story to tell you this one.

Fess Parker, the Texas-born actor I mentioned earlier, after graduating from the University of Texas, soon left the state to pursue an acting career. Over the years, he acted in many television and movie roles, including Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett. But one of the movies that helped make him a Hollywood Star was playing the part of the father in the Disney movie, Old Yeller, based on Fred Gipson’s novel. And, while he occasionally played characters with Texas themes, he never returned to live in Texas.

Fred Gipson, on the other hand, never really left Texas. He died in the hill country in 1973, not far from where he was born. Along the way, he wrote a string of books, several of which became movies, and which dealt with rural Texas themes and the animals he loved. Upon Gipson’s leaving us, his burial in the exclusive Texas State Cemetery in Austin was approved by a proclamation of the governor. And, as Paul Harvey used to say, “now you know the rest of the story.” The epitaph on his headstone sums up his life in the nicest and, most appropriate way.


Friday, March 19, 2010

That One Particular Texas Road Sign

Like a lot of states, Texas has many wild critters that like to run across the roadways in front of passing automobile and truck traffic, including squirrels, skunks, turtles, possums, rabbits, and deer. Unlike a lot of states, however, Texas roadways are also sometimes visited by feral hogs and armadillos. As a motorist, dealing with wild animals darting across the road is always a problem, especially if it is something large like a deer or a hog. But, in many places in Texas, besides keeping a watchful eye for wild animals, the motorist needs to pay special attention to livestock on the road as well.

Texas is an open range state, which means that except along federal and main state highways, or where prohibited by local stock laws, livestock may roam at large. This results in livestock occasionally finding their way onto roadways where they endanger themselves as well as passing motorists.

Over the next several months, the roads of the hill country will be a little busier as folks head out to see the fields of Texas wildflowers. In addition to marveling at the colorful Bluebonnets, Indian Blankets, and other wildflowers, I, for one, will also be on the lookout for something else. While yellow and black, it is not a colorful flower, but a road sign with the words “Loose Livestock” on the front. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got enough challenges in my life without hitting a 2,000 pound Texas Longhorn while out driving around looking at pretty flowers.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Austin’s Underappreciated Attraction

With all the things to see and do in Austin, Texas, it is understandable that some attractions are a little more popular than others. The Texas State Capitol Building, Sixth Street, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Zilker Park, and Barton Springs Pool are but just a few of the many sites representative of the city. These great sites, along with hundreds of wonderful places to eat, command the attention of both visitors and locals alike all year long. There is one attraction however, which never seems to show up on any “Top 10 Things to See and Do in Austin” list. And, that’s unfortunate, because it truly is one of Austin’s best kept secrets.

One day last week, I headed over to one of the oldest active military facilities in Texas, Camp Mabry, to see the BG John C.L. Scribner Texas Military Forces Museum. The camp was established in Austin in the 1890’s, and named for Brigadier General Woodford Mabry, who was then the Adjutant General of Texas. Soon after the camp was established, he left his post as Adjutant General, to fight in the Spanish-American War. And, although he died in Cuba in 1899, the camp he established in Austin, and the one which bears his name, is still an active military post, and remains the headquarters for the Texas Military Forces. These forces include the Texas Air National Guard, Texas Army National Guard, and Texas State Guard.

Upon arriving at Camp Mabry, visitors have to stop at the gate and present some form of photo identification to get in, and, in addition, they must consent to having the trunk of their automobile searched. All in all, the security stop at the gate only takes a minute or two, and is not much of an inconvenience, especially given the fact that there is no charge to enter the museum.

I have to admit that I really wasn’t expecting to be very impressed with the museum. I figured there must be a good reason for the relative lack of publicity and visitors it receives. But, I was very wrong. What I found, instead, was something that Austin should be proud of publicizing a little more than it does.

The museum itself consists of both indoor and outdoor displays. The museum was first opened in 1992, after years of careful planning. The museum exhibits thousands of military artifacts, and provides an interpretation of the history of the military forces of Texas. From the Texas War of Independence from Mexico, through a host of other wars throughout this country’s history, the military forces of Texas have played a prominent and important role. This historical role is proudly reflected in every part of the museum. The museum is named for Brigadier General John C.L. Scribner, who served in the Texas Military Forces, and was instrumental in making the museum a reality following his retirement.

The indoor portion of the museum is housed in a large building constructed in 1918, and which served as Camp Mabry’s mess hall for many years. The friendly volunteer docents told me that the mess hall, at one time, used steam in the kitchen. Apparently, at some point there was a steam related death, and, ever since, a ghost has been seen in and around the building, or, so the story goes.

As you would expect, the museum building is filled with uniforms, guns, maps, flags, and battle dioramas. However, since the old mess hall is so large, it also contains cavalry wagons, cannons, airplanes, helicopters, jeeps, tanks, armored vehicles, and communication vans. It even contains relatively obscure displays, like the immersion heater, which ensured that the mess kits of common foot soldiers were kept bacteria free. Additionally, there are numerous handouts which provide information on the military displays at the museum, important Texas battles, Texas Military Forces in World War II, wartime recipes, and a walking tour of the historic sites of Camp Mabry. There is also a small gift store, with books, postcards, and other small items you can purchase to both support the museum and to help remember your visit.

Outside, the military displays are impressive. There are several areas to visit: Armor Row, Artillery Park, and the Static Displays. Armor Row consists of tanks, self-propelled howitzers, armored personnel carriers, bulldozers, mortar carriers, tow vehicles, and many other armored vehicles. Artillery Park consists of American, French, German, and Soviet artillery pieces. The Static displays include both American fighter jets and helicopters. The outdoor display of military firepower and aircraft covers quite an area, so make sure you are wearing your walking shoes.

Sad to say, but the day and time I visited the museum, I was the only visitor there. The good news was, I had the whole place to myself. The bad news was, I had the whole place to myself. The volunteer docents were very accommodating, and eager to show me around. Given that I was the only visitor at the time, they asked me if I enjoyed the museum, and, if so, would I tell others to come visit? Given my positive experience, I told them I would definitely tell others, and, it is a pleasure to do so.

Why more people, both visitors and locals, don’t visit the museum is a mystery to me. Perhaps, it is because it does not fit in with the slogan which Austin brands itself with, that slogan being, “Keep Austin Weird.” There is certainly nothing "weird" about the many thousands of Texans who have served in the military forces of Texas from the 1830's to this present day. And, while the museum highlighting their service may be underappreciated, the historical service of these brave members of the Texas Military Forces is very much appreciated.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Man Of Two Centuries: The Hill Country Lawman Who Brought Down Bonnie And Clyde

As I pulled through the old stone entrance and drove into Austin Memorial Park, I immediately realized that the office was a part of the old stone entrance. I parked the car, walked up and pushed the office door open. Inside, in a very small room, a man was on the telephone. Listening to voice messages, and returning calls, he looked up and asked me how he could help me. Noticing how very busy he was, I quickly asked him where I could find the location of Frank A. Hamer’s grave. While still on the phone, he didn’t miss a beat as he swiveled in his chair, looked out the window, and pointed out a location a short distance away behind a crop of trees. From the time I entered the office, until the time I left, was no more than 20 seconds. Obviously, he had been asked this question many times before.

As I walked out to find the grave, it occurred to me that the man on the telephone, in the old stone building, was symbolic of Frank Hamer’s life. Using modern day technology, he was still seated in the past.

Frank Hamer was born in 1884, and grew up in San Saba County, in the Texas Hill Country. It is said, that in his early teens, he and one of his brothers began working for a local farmer. There are several stories as to why, but at some point, the farmer shot Frank with a shotgun. Helped to safety by his brother, he eventually recovered from his wounds. Then, at the age of 16, Frank went back to see the farmer who had shot him. When he left the farm, the farmer was dead. From that day forward, and for the rest of his life, Frank Hamer was uncompromising in his often violent pursuit of justice.

When he was 20 or 21, and working as a cowboy on a Texas ranch, he captured a horse thief. As a result, the local sheriff took note and encouraged him to join the Texas Rangers, which he did. Frank worked intermittently with the Texas Rangers over the years, leaving from time to time to pursue other positions in law enforcement, but then always coming back. His bravery was never questioned, and, in Sherman, Texas, in 1930, he almost singlehandedly tried to protect a prisoner from an angry lynch mob. Over the years he pursued horse thieves, killers, smugglers, bank robbers and bootleggers, but the people he despised the most were corrupt politicians, like the back-to-back husband and wife Texas governors, “Pa” and “Ma” Ferguson.

Hamer eventually retired from the Rangers in the early 1930’s, but was soon called back to serve Texas in leading the effort to track down and stop the Barrow Gang. Both Clyde Barrow, and Bonnie Parker, were both born and raised in Texas, and for a couple of years the gang killed lawmen, robbed banks, and outwitted law enforcement officials in several states, including Texas.

Forming a posse composed of law enforcement officials from a couple of states, Frank used his excellent tracking skills to locate Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker driving along a quiet rural road just outside Gibsland, Louisiana. Along with his posse, and with Frank wielding a .35 caliber Remington Model 8 semi-automatic rifle, Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed in May of 1934. Over 160 rounds were pumped into the car, and both Bonnie and Clyde were killed instantly in the hail of gunfire. In the aftermath of the ambush, Frank became a national hero, albeit, a humble one, refusing to ever tell the story of his participation in the downfall of Bonnie and Clyde. Even today, he is regarded by the Texas Rangers as one of the best the organization has ever produced.

Following the incident, Frank soon returned to private life and private industry, serving as a strike-breaker on behalf of companies in Texas. Following World War II, he was again called back to service with the Texas Rangers, in helping verify election returns in several Texas counties in 1948. After this brief interlude with his beloved Texas Rangers, Frank finally retired for the last time. Despite his violent career, he died peacefully in Austin in 1955.

Two of Frank’s brothers, including Harrison Hamer, the brother who dragged Frank to safety after he was shotgunned as a boy, went on to become Texas Rangers themselves. One of Frank’s sons, Billy Hamer, was killed in action on Iwo Jima as a young U.S. Marine in March 1945. Another son, Frank Hamer, Jr., also served in the Marine Corps as a pilot during World War II, and, after briefly serving in the Texas Rangers himself, spent most of the rest of his working career flying for the Texas Fish and Game Commission.Today, Frank rests quietly in Austin Memorial Park, next to his wife, Gladys, and his son, Billy, who died during the war. During his life, Frank took part in about 50 gunfights, killed many men, and was wounded many times. His life crossed the end of one century and passed into a new one, and while he began his career chasing criminals on a horse with a shotgun, by the end of his career he was pursuing them in a fast automobile with a high powered semi-automatic rifle.

When all is said and done, it seems that while Frank may have adapted to the changing times with respect to transportation and firearms, he never wavered in his single minded “Old West” focus to rid the world of those who committed crimes. He was shrewd and clever, and was completely intolerant of people who broke the law. Until the day he died, he never regretted killing a single person, because, in his view, the extreme violence was always justified in bringing criminals to some form of justice.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rolling Doubles: Double Digit Temperatures In The 80’s, Along With Double Meat And Double Cheese

Today was a fine and beautiful day, with clear and very bright blue skies, and temperatures in the low 80’s. A fine and beautiful day is one thing, but a perfect day is something altogether different. A beautiful day is exclusively defined by the weather, but the perfect day is defined by things over and above the weather. Today was, at least for me, a perfect day. And, in my case, the perfection was defined by double meat and double cheese.

Some days, when you wake up, you realize that it is going to be a great day. After a few thunderstorms last night, I woke up to a warm, but foggy morning, which soon burned off into light blue skies. In other words, it was the start of a great day, created by someone or something much more important and larger than me. But, taking a great day, and making it perfect, is all up to individual initiative.

In my case, hunger was my “individual initiative,” and I when studied the day, all I could think about was double meat and double cheese. Double meat and double cheese is found at Little Red Wagon Hamburgers, and Little Red Wagon Hamburgers is found in Round Rock, Texas. And, so, guided by my individual initiative, I got in the car and drove to Round Rock. At the end of “my Texas trail,” I pulled into the parking lot, and circled the place a time or two before finding a parking spot, in fact, the “perfect” parking spot right in front of the place.

Things move fast once you walk in the door. If you’ve not been at the Red Wagon before, it’s best to study up on the menu before you get there, because the minute you walk in, the friendly folks will be asking you what you want. In a pinch, even if you don’t have a clue what to say, just say, “Double meat, double cheese.”

The relatively small place is paneled with corrugated metal siding on the bottom half of the interior walls, but what it lacks in inside ambience, it more than makes up for in the quality of its food. The double meat, double cheese hamburger, served at the Red Wagon is beyond great, it is perfect, or nearly so. Topped off with mustard, mayonnaise, lots of tomato slices, sliced pickles, and shredded lettuce on a toasted bun, it is accompanied with a side of hot and salted fries. As you can imagine, this delicious burger is a little messy, and, thankfully, there is a fresh roll of paper towels on each table.

Along with the great double digit 80 degree day, came perfection in the form of a double meat and double cheese creation on a toasted bun, with all the trimmings. I’m glad I keep rolling doubles!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Remembering The Alamo Survivors: Susanna Dickinson And “The Babe of the Alamo”

When I was growing up, everybody I knew believed a common myth that there were no survivors among the defenders of the Alamo mission. This myth has been perpetuated over the years for various reasons, but whatever the reasons, it is not true. While it is accurate, perhaps, that all combatant defenders perished in the fighting, there were, in fact, survivors. Among the survivors of the battle were Susanna Dickinson and her infant daughter, the one they called “The Babe of the Alamo.”

This past Saturday was the anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo. On March 6, 1836, General Santa Anna, commanding Mexican military forces at the time, attacked the Texans holed up inside the mission. The attack came after a brief siege, and in the ensuing battle, hundreds of attackers and defenders were killed, including, Jim Bowie and Davy Crocket. For reasons still unknown today, General Santa Anna spared the life of Susanna Dickinson and her baby daughter, Angelina, and they were released.

Susanna Wilkerson was born in Tennessee in 1814, and was married at the age of 15 to Almaron Dickinson. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Texas. Caught up in the turbulent times during the push for Texas independence from Mexico, her husband volunteered to help defend what is now San Antonio, Texas. It wasn’t long before Susanna, and their daughter Angelina, joined him in the Alamo Mission. And, while Almaron died in the famous battle, his wife and daughter were spared.

In the aftermath of the battle, and because of the subsequent release granted by General Santa Anna, Susanna was able to inform the rebellious Texans about the catastrophic loss at the Alamo Mission. It was, in part, due to her eyewitness testimony of the battle, that angry Texans rallied and successfully completed their quest for independence at the Battle of San Jacinto the following month, when Santa Anna surrendered his army.

Angelina, “The Babe of the Alamo,” married several times before passing away sometime around 1870, in either Galveston or New Orleans. And her mother, Susanna, widowed at such an early age, went through a slew of husbands over the years. With her fifth and last husband, Joseph Hannig, she eventually moved to Austin, Texas, where she died in 1883. Upon her death, she was buried in Austin’s Oakland Cemetery, where she rests today. With her passing, went the last of the remaining Anglo defenders of the Alamo.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Texas Independence Day

March 2nd of every year is a very special day for Texans. For it is on this day, that citizens of Texas annually celebrate something which cannot be celebrated by citizens around the rest of the country, Texas Independence Day. Unlike any other state, Texas was once an independent and sovereign nation.

It was on March 2, 1836, in Washington-on-the-Brazos, that an assembly of representatives from various small villages and settlements throughout Texas voted to approve the Declaration of Independence from Mexico. In the words of the document itself, the signers declared “that the people of Texas do now constitute a free, Sovereign, and independent republic.” Through the actions of this assembly of delegates, the Republic of Texas was formed.

The move toward independence was precipitated by Mexico’s decision to create a centralized form of government, which greatly diluted the power of the individual Mexican states, including the state of Coahuila y Tejas, which now includes parts of present day Texas.

It was an official Texas State Holiday today, and in Austin, the capital of Texas, there was an observance at the Texas State Cemetery, where fifteen signers of the “The Unanimous Declaration of Independence made by the Delegates of the People of Texas,” on that day long ago, are buried.

Declaring independence is one thing, securing the independence declared is something else altogether. On March 6, 1836, less than a week after independence was declared, the upstart Texans were dealt a bloody setback at the Alamo Mission in San Antonio, by the Mexican military leader, Santa Anna.