For this West Texan, Rockwell renderings of a presidential childhood are all bull
Growing up in West Texas marks you forever.
Mountain ranges give me the creeps. Rain was such a stranger that I still can barely manage to open and close an umbrella without having a nervous breakdown. Even after all these years, my idea of pure freedom remains driving fast along a flat, straight road, drinking beer, and playing country music so loud my eardrums almost burst.
Around Midland, where I went to high school, the land is hard, unforgiving, and flat. My father worked in the oil business, so we moved from town to town in the Permian Basin, always buying a new house on the edge of town, always planting a spindly tree in the front yard. We had to stake the new trees so they wouldn’t bend in the fierce winds that blew almost every day.
When we moved to Midland in 1965, the city had a gritty energy and a drive I hadn’t seen in the other towns. Dust was in the air, but so was money. I heard stories about dentists quitting their jobs and making fortunes from oil strikes; surveyors who claimed narrow plots of overlooked land that yielded millions in mineral rights; Midlanders who had bowling alleys in their basements and flew to Dallas to shop.
When your father works as an accountant for an oil company, as mine did, you don’t have any dramatic stories of sudden wealth to tell. You learn to watch and listen.
In a city of doers, hustlers, gamblers, optimists, and oil visionaries, introspection is for sissies with too much time on their hands. Which means Midland is a great place to watch and listen as long as you don’t mind feeling lonely now and then.
The Midland I knew is different from the one George W. Bush talks about. He recalls small-town values like neighborliness, a safe place where kids rode bicycles all over and families gathered for impromptu picnics and barbecues. The Midland I recall was richer and edgier, and not nearly as wholesome, fueled by alcohol and boredom and empty horizons—more Larry McMurtry than Reader’s Digest.
“They always said George W. used to be wild,” a 70-year-old veteran of Midland’s faster lanes once told me. She was dressed in a short skirt and cowboy boots, with a carefully painted face and stiff, well-coiffed hair that could have withstood the fiercest norther. She sniffed loudly. “Well,” she said, “he wasn’t really wild. Not by Midland standards.”
Visiting Bush’s childhood home in Midland now, there’s nothing to suggest that anything wild by Midland—or any other city’s—standards ever happened when the Bush family lived there between 1951 and 1955. At 1412 West Ohio Avenue, it’s the idyllic memories that are preserved and recreated.
In the restless, get-rich-tomorrow Permian Basin economy, the Bush family actually lived in three houses in nearby Odessa in 1948 and 1949, and in three Midland houses between 1950 and 1959. Claiming the Bushes is all part of a continuing competition between Midland and Odessa, prairie cities that sit 20 miles apart, reveling in their differences. Midland is richer; Odessa is blue collar. Odessa is tougher, a better place to drink; Midland has more country clubs. The airport bears Midland’s name, but Odessa landed University of Texas of the Permian Basin.
If you’re from Midland or Odessa, you feel deeply insulted when outsiders say they always get the cities confused. Can’t people see the profound differences? Nobody else cares, but in the Permian Basin, confusing Midland and Odessa are fighting words—or evidence that you might be in serious need of a working brain.
You can forget about Odessa when you’re in Midland. “I tell people this is the only house in America that was the home of two presidents, two governors, and one first lady,” a volunteer docent at the Midland house said.
Since it opened to the public in April 2006, the house has attracted thousands of visitors from 33 countries and 48 states. (Alaska and New Hampshire are the only holdouts.) The plain frame house, built in 1939, has been restored to a painstaking recreation of a 1950s family home. The paneling in the living room is knotty pine; Venetian blinds shade the sun. There’s an old television with a small screen that resembles the one Barbara Bush’s father once gave the family for Christmas, and an enclosed porch with a stick horse and a chalkboard.
The kitchen boasts a speckled linoleum floor and a dazzling turquoise refrigerator that still works. In a bedroom, a neatly folded Cub Scout uniform lies on a twin bed. There’s a photograph of George H.W. Bush as a lanky Yalie standing next to Babe Ruth, and George W.’s Little League roster.
It’s an impressive job, this careful, airbrushed paean to a simpler time, to a warmhearted city of good neighbors and backyard barbecues, to a hardworking and unassuming family. “It seems improbable now, but in that little house on Ohio Street right down the road from here, it was hard to envision then the future . . . of two presidents and a governor of Florida,” George W. told the Dallas Morning News in 2001.
Not quite so improbable when you consider the family’s hefty ties to Eastern financial and political establishments, but why quibble? It makes a better story that way, when fate singles out a young family for political destiny—even if it wasn’t much less likely, given the circumstances, than a dust storm slamming into Midland every spring.
It makes a cleaner, simpler story. But it made me wonder about other, untold stories. How had Midland and West Texas marked George W. Bush in ways that didn’t fit with the Norman Rockwell renderings of community cookouts? Had this hard country, with so little time or patience for self-reflection, contributed to a man who famously never admits mistakes nor learns from them? Wasn’t there something more, something that could explain him better?
“We’ve had a few surprises here, I guess,” said Christopher Havins, the home’s executive director. He sat in the home’s office, surrounded by envelopes and letters. A small red sled was propped against one wall. “We had this one lovely lady who came through and cried during the entire visit. Because it was so significant, you know.”
Wait. A small red sled? Could it be?
“The rest—well, they’re just varied visitors,” Havins continued. “People from the Philippines and Russia, China, Africa, the Middle East. A lot of it is touching. People came here from Kuwait—and they were so grateful.
“Any Iraqis?” He paused to think. “No. No Iraqis. People from Kuwait, Oman, and Dubai. But no Iraqis.”
But the sled! The red sled, a Royal Racer. What about it? To whom did it belong? What was its meaning?
The docent looked surprised at the sudden interest. “It was probably something the historian picked up,” she said. “Or maybe something the family brought with them from New England. It was probably based on photographs we have.”
Havins said, “I don’t know. The family might have used it—or something like it.”
He gazed out the window at a bright December day.
“It used to snow here, you know,” he said. “It used to snow a lot more in West Texas.”
Ruth Pennebaker is an Austin writer, young-adult author, and commentator on KUT, a public radio station at the University of Texas at Austin. She blogs at http://geezersisters.word press.com. Reprinted from the Texas Observer(Jan. 25, 2008). Subscriptions: $32/yr. (24 issues) from 307 W. Seventh St., Austin, TX 78701; www.texasobserver.org.