Center & Main Stories from the Heart of McMurtry Country Mon, 09 Mar 2015 04:34:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Blue Paints Mon, 09 Mar 2015 03:45:05 +0000 By James Hoggard

Perkins-Prothro Distinguished Professor of English at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, TX.

Hoggard is also a former poet laureate of Texas and past president of the Texas Institute of Letters.


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I’d ridden in the Hotter’n Hell Hundred since its beginning, some four or so years back; and I often rode alone. Later, I just as often rode with a team of friends. Then, by serendipity, the matter in what became “Blue Paints” occurred. But I didn’t write it down or send it out, primarily because people, even those I didn’t know, kept asking me to tell them the story, and I did. What especially struck me about the piece was what it encapsulated: mainly the fact that long-distance road biking seemed less and less exotic; and that in spirit it wittily broke down social barriers, while including in its voice that favorite idiom of the plains, the tall tale.

From The Devil’s Fingers & Other Personal Essays

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The entry numbers for the bicycle race hadn’t come close to hitting the high figures yet, but soon they would. In a couple years more than 10,000 then 12- and even 13,000 would gather at Memorial Stadium (then downtown) the last Saturday in August for the Hotter’n Hell Hundred, the biggest century bicycle ride/race in the Northern Hemisphere. Each year a cannon shot started the event, and riders of all ages and shapes would begin the various routes. Families and friends would ride together or singly, and world class competitors and others would try to outdo themselves and as many others as they could. I had ridden in the event from the beginning – 50 miles the first time then 100K for a couple years after that, then the 100-mile route since then. The challenge was thrilling. Temperatures often topped 100F, the changeable wind was usually high, and the ambience of the rest stops celebrative.

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I was still in preparation, though. The scorch of mid-July had settled in, and it was time to start the long rides. I was more serious now than when I had first started. My bike and outfit showed that. I was no longer riding a 44-pounder in cut-off Levi’s, tennis shoes, old T-shirt and terrycloth fishing hat. The colorfulness of my getup now sometimes made me think that if I had had a bunch of brothers the way Joseph had had, I’d have been thrown in a pit, too. Sometimes I was grateful that my parents hadn’t done much breeding.

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Out of the house by 6 AM, I was ready for my first big ride of the season: Electra for breakfast, some 30-35 miles away. I’d have carbo-rich pancakes, refill my water bottles and head back home, getting 60-70 miles in before noon.

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The Dairy Queen in Electra had not yet become the Saturday morning home for bikers that it would be – a fine turn-around point for long training rides: plenty of hills and miles there and back, and a guarantee of a windfight, too. Sometimes you’d think you’d be flying on the way home then find the wind had shifted; and now, instead of at your back, it was driving hard at your shoulders and face. I also had not started riding in packs – I rarely even rode with a friend – so energy-restoring drafting was not an option. The extravagance of biking a long distance for breakfast, though, made the jaunt seem worth it; and the terrain for several long stretches was wonderfully rugged. I had long agreed with my friends in the Renaissance: too much was just enough.

Red clay sandstone gullies cut deeply and jaggedly into hills. Purple thistle was blooming in borrow ditches with prickly pear, buttercups and their cousins white bindweed. Mesquite and yucca crowded the rough rolling plains like giant webshapes and clusters of long-bladed daggers. Mid them, pumpjacks coughed and chugged and drove the polished brass tongues of steel grasshoppers down to broken formations to suck oil up out of the earth. Now and then a coyote would cross the road far ahead, and cattle loitering at barbed-wire fences would bolt, shying back out into pastures when you rolled humming past them, your clicking freewheel saying you needed to lubricate your chain. There was still a lot to learn, but now I was back on the main highway. The Dairy Queen in Electra was just a few bumpy miles ahead.

Up under the front awning now, I propped my bike against the red brick wall. The morning still young, I saw a table inside the place packed with men. Most of them were dressed in khaki, and seeing them hunkered over their coffee or pushing back away from it to listen better or to talk, I knew who they were, even though I had never been here. They and others like them all over the area had been gathering for years in places like this on Saturday mornings. They had a mission to accomplish: get away from the damn women. Saturday by god was their day off, even for those of them who might have already retired. There was no sense being pestered into a whole day full of honey-do chores, and no sense being yakked at again for being underfoot. They were here where the world made sense – at least it had until I walked in and conversation stopped. Belligerent looking eyes fixed on me.

My uniform wasn’t khaki. It wasn’t even anywhere close to the color or fit of what they had on. Damn, I thought, as I peeled off my open-fingered, palm-padded turquoise gloves, I might even have to fight my way out of here. I still had my yellow helmet on with a tiny rearview mirror sticking out from it on a fingerbone brace. My sunglasses were rainbow lens wrap-arounds. My seablue shorts were skintight Spandex, and my many-colored light-lovely-Lycra shirt hugged my chest, shoulders, and belly. It had three pockets low in back that sagged when stuff was in them, and stuff was in them now: a banana and a sandwich sack with a couple Fig Newtons for energy lags, a bit of money, and a spare innertube.

The oldest looking one of the group – he looked like the resident silver-back or Alpha male – was staring at me especially hard, so I did what I had done before in situations like this. I stared back. Following an ancient ritual, we were sizing each other up. We might even have to butt horns before the day was done. No one at the table was laughing and no one was speaking. Alpha and I kept eyeing each other until, in steps, the group turned its attention back to its table. I sat down then in a booth by the window. The waitress came and I placed my order, but the moment she left I felt another hard stare. I glanced around to meet it.

Alpha was looking directly at me, his eyes severe, his jaw set. He looked angry but I kept my response restrained. Long ago I had learned better than to jump to conclusions. People around here were often more oblique than they seemed. Still, I had to keep challenging his stare. Backing down wouldn’t do. That might really cause trouble if the situation were truly belligerent. Around here it’s often hard at first to tell whether it is or not. Fixed on each other, neither one of us looked away; and no one at the table was talking. Then Alpha spoke, and if I hadn’t lived in the area so long I might have had no idea at all what he was asking.

His voice gravelly and his look as impassive as a snake’s, he asked, “Em paints hep?”

Keeping my look as severe as his, I told him, “Yep,” and I was right. The pants really did help, and giving me a great smile now, he asked me how, the mood between us suddenly friendly. I had misread his attitude altogether. I told him about chamois padding, circulation, chafing, unguarded gear sprockets, and material that wicks out sweat. He wanted to know if I really had come in all the way from Wichita, and when I told him yes, he laughed, then said if he ever tried pulling a stunt like that himself he’d probably die – either that or his old lady would get mad and come out after him in their pickup and wreck him.

“They’ll do that,” I said.

Saying he wanted to hear more about my get-up, he asked, “What’s that deal on your lid I saw?”

I picked my helmet up off the seat beside me and showed him. “It’s a mirror, rearview mirror.”

“That’s no bigger’n a quarter. It really work?”

“Sure, try it,” I said and handed the helmet to him.

He cocked it at an angle and squinted into the little glass. “I’ll be,” he said, moving both it and his head around to check the view from several angles. “Little booger really does work.”

“Here, let me try it,” one of the others said, reaching over to grab it, but Alpha shoved his hand away and told him:

“No. You’d probably break it, clumsy as you are.” Then giving me the helmet back, he said, “Tell me about the shirt. That’s about the loudest damn thing I ever saw.”

So I explained the importance of high visibility on the highway, not to mention style of course. Several of the others nodded and said that made sense, crazy as a lot of the drivers around here were.

“What he means,” another one told me, “is that some of the drivers round here are simple, just plain simple – like a dumb rock.”

“You mean as opposed to a smart rock?” another one asked.

“You know,” Alpha said, moseying back into the conversation to take charge again, “we got an old bud comes in here who rides himself a bike. Fact, he’ll be in here directly.”

“He don’t know jack either,” one of the others said, and the table laughed again.

Right after we turned back to our own concerns, the door opened and I heard Alpha say, “Frank, get yourself over to that booth there. Young fella has some things to tell ya.”

“What?” Frank asked.

“Go on, get yourself over there in that booth. You’re going about your biking all wrong. He’ll tell you all you need to know. Now slide on in there,” Alpha insisted, and Frank did, offering me his hand across the table. As I was shaking hands with him, I heard Alpha saying, “And tell him everything you told us – don’t forget the padded gloves either. I hadn’t even realized – none of us here had – how complicated a thing it is that ol’ Frank’s gotten himself involved with.”

“But don’t go too fast,” one of the others said. “He’s as hard of hearing as he is slow. Frank’s prone to miss a lot. We often have to repeat things for him.”

When the waitress brought my pancakes, she included a cup of coffee for Frank who told her he’d be skipping his sweet roll. He said he was going to start getting in shape while we talked. I was glad I enjoyed ambiguity. It wasn’t always clear who, if anyone, was being teased: Frank or me or the others – or if the world itself were the butt of their play. Frank, I thought, though, looked in pretty good shape already. Most of his friends did, too. They weren’t built like Greyhounds and I was sure they didn’t move like Border Collies, but they also didn’t have the peter bellies a lot of chicken-fried-steak-gravy-loving rural men around here had: tubs of guts sagging like ballast over their belts.

After awhile Frank pushed back from the table. He said what I had been telling him made sense. We had even drifted into talk about index shifting, comparative frame weights, shoe and pedal types, Presta valves, Camelbaks, and tire sizes. He also made me back up once so he could jot down on a napkin the formula for setting seat height. Then looking as if he were regathering the information in memory, he bit his right index knuckle then slapped his fist down on the table. “That makes all kinds of good sense,” he said. “Fact, I’m going in to Wichita this afternoon and get a new rig – and I mean a whole new bike, too,” he said, his voice rising. “That ol’ Huffy of mine ain’t good enough! I’m gonna upgrade to the kind of rig I need.”

“Sounds fine to me,” I told him, then checking my watch, I said I needed to get back out on the road.

“Have a good’n,” Frank and Alpha and all their friends told me as I clomped my way out in my stiff-soled shoes, cleats clicking on the floor tiles.

Two weeks later I discovered that Frank really had been serious. I had ridden into Electra again, but wanting to test how acclimated I was to distance and heat, I wasn’t going to stop at the Dairy Queen. I was simply going to refill my two water bottles from an outside faucet and circle back home by a longer route than I had used last time.

Pedaling out of town, I glanced down a cross street to check traffic when I saw Frank a block away. He was tooling down the street on his bike, and I couldn’t help but smile. Even from this distance I could tell it was new, and he hadn’t spared expense. He really had dumped his old one and gotten himself a new lightweight road bike. Not only that, he was outfitted head to foot in a color-coordinated outfit: sleekly aerodynamic silver helmet, fluorescent yellow-green shirt with matching racing-striped biking shorts, and a new pair of shoes that clicked into pedals and would make him walk around as uncompromisingly stiff and low-heeled as mine made me. I don’t think he saw me, but I waved at him anyway. I had a happily steep downhill run ahead before the road began rising meanly.


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The Epically True Tale of an Ice Cream Calamity Fri, 14 Nov 2014 00:47:05 +0000 by Lauren Levine (2014 writer)

Tragedy has officially struck…there is no ice cream at the Dairy Queen.  “Excuse me, can I have y’alls attention,” calls out the frazzled, brown-haired manager over our workshop groups’ chatter. “The machine is broken.” More ominous words have yet to be uttered in this culinary Mecca of Archer City.

It’s a sweltering Monday afternoon in Archer City, the home place of author Larry McMurtry and the setting of many of his renowned novels. The dry July heat is unrelenting, and my fellow writers and I turn to the town’s seeming beacon of hope, Dairy Queen, for delicious and cooling reprieve from the Texas temperatures.  With our heads filled with new knowledge on the craft of storytelling, our stomachs emptied and whining for nourishment, and our butts sufficiently sore from sitting for only god knows how long-losing track of time as usual-we wait with excitement to order our lunch at this fast food establishment.

Smack dab in the middle of town lay the one and only Dairy Queen, where the saliva-inducing aroma of greasy French fries, juicy burgers, and Type 2 diabetes lingers in the air. At first glance it looks like any other restaurant in the chain: white bricks, red roof, and the familiar and inviting red and white signage. Step inside, however, and it’s an homage to McMurtry. The actual booth where McMurtry sat while writing Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen is adorned with pictures of his book covers, attracting writers, McMurtry enthusiasts, and wannabe Texans to glean inspiration and soak up the western nostalgia.  But apart from McMurtry’s literary legacy, this DQ’s lifeblood comes from the ice-cold treats pumped out daily from a glorious stainless-steel contraption festooned with buttons, levers, knobs, and interconnecting veins all flowing with frozen vanilla cream.

Back in the line of both veteran and student writers, I gasp, stunned by the DQ manager, Debbie Stender’s, distressing announcement. Archer City’s heart has been afflicted with an unfortunate arrhythmia, the grand silver and white ice-cream machine unable to pump out even the tiniest dribble of soft-serve deliciousness.  Oh, the inhumanity! Part of me wants to cry out a dramatic “NOOO!” but fear of ridicule keeps me biting my tongue.  “What?! The ice cream machine is broken?!  Someone, alert the press!” cries one of my classmates.

After a few tormenting minutes pass and the line thins out, I find myself up at the register to give Debbie my order.  I stare blankly, stymied by the unsatisfying menu options before me.  Dairy Queen without ice cream is like McDonald’s without its Big Mac. Like KFC without its original recipe. Like Hooters without…well, you get the idea. It just doesn’t make sense and inevitably leaves you disappointed.  Should I order a smoothie? Blasphemous! A latte? Sacrilege!

Ice cream is the reason you come to Dairy Queen. Isn’t it? I mean why else would people come to this fast food joint full of dairy products from the world of “Cow Udder” all marked at reasonably low prices. It’s a lactose lovers’ dreamland; where happiness is supposed to come in the form of a $3.00 vanilla soft-serve with a chocolate shell and a waffle cone.



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2014 Auction of Larry McMurtry’s First Edition Works Fri, 11 Jul 2014 23:18:50 +0000  




George Getschow, director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, with the first-edition Larry McMurty books that will be auctioned July 19 during this year’s conference.

George Getschow, director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, with the first-edition Larry McMurty books that will be auctioned July 19 during this year’s conference.

What: The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference Benefit Auction, celebrating the 10th year of the conference, which is hosted each July by the University of North Texas’ Frank W. & Sue Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism

When: Online auction June 27(Friday) to July 19 (Saturday). Live auction, with first editions of 11 autographed novels by Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurtry, at 7 p.m. July 19.

Where: Online auction on Heritage Auctions website. Live auction at the Hilton DFW Lakes Executive Center, 1800 Highway 26 East in Grapevine, Texas, as part of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference’s Literary Lights awards dinner. The dinner is open, for a fee, to those who are not registered for the full conference.

DENTON (UNT), Texas — First edition copies of Larry McMurtry’s novels Lonesome Dove, winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for fiction; The Last Picture ShowTerms of Endearment and his latest, The Last Kind Words Saloon, will be among the books available during the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference Benefit Auction June 27 (Friday) through July 19 (Saturday).

The auction is being held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the conference. Created to enhance the quality of nonfiction writing, encourage innovation and create a community of storytellers who are devoted the art and craft of narrative nonfiction, the conference is hosted each July by the University of North Texas’ Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, which is part of UNT’s Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism. This year’s conference is July 18-20(Friday-Sunday) at the Hilton DFW Lakes Executive Conference Center, 1800 Highway 26 East in Grapevine, with a theme of is Narratives on the Cutting Edge: Writing about Science, Technology, Medicine and Innovation.

Proceeds from the Mayborn Conference’s auction will be used to provide financial awards for students and emerging writers to attend future conferences. It will be mostly online through Heritage Auctions of Dallas. It will offer not only 10 first editions of McMurtry’s novels — all autographed — but also books donated by the keynote speakers of this year’s conference, and books from past keynote speakers.

From the conference’s inaugural year in 2005, keynote speakers have been part of the Friday evening opening dinner and the Saturday evening Literary Lights awards dinner, which honors the winners of the conference’s writing contests. A keynote speaker for Sunday morning was added in 2006.

McMurtry, a 1958 graduate of UNT, has not been a keynote speaker, but has been associated with the conference through the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism’s three-week Creative Nonfiction class in Archer City, McMurty’s hometown. The class ends with students attending the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. McMurty has visited the class in Archer City.

Bidding for McMurtry’s books, Session 1 of the auction, will begin at 10 p.m. Central Daylight Time June 27 (Friday) and end at 10 p.m. CDT July 18 (Friday). Bidding will resume at a live auction 7 p.m. July 19 (Saturday) that will be part of Literary Lights, the Mayborn Conference’s annual awards dinner. The winners of the conference’s Best American Newspaper Narrative Contest and Reported Narrative, Personal Essay and Book Manuscript contests will be honored at the dinner, which will also feature keynote speaker Lawrence Wright. Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.

The dinner and live auction of McMurtry’s books is open to members of the general public who are not registered for the Mayborn Conference. Tickets are $100 and are available until Friday, July 13.

Session 2 of the auction will be entirely online through Heritage Auctions and offer books from the conference’s past keynote speakers. The works include:

  • The Liberation trilogy by 2013 keynote speaker Rick Atkinson. The trilogy, a narrative history of the U.S. military’s role in the liberation of Europe during World War, includes An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-43, which received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in history; The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, published in 2007; and The Guns at Last Light: The War in Europe, 1944-1945, published in 2013. The book plates are autographed by Atkinson.
  • Four books that offer a complete, in-depth history of the nuclear age — The Making of the Atomic BombThe Making of the Nuclear Arms RaceDark Sun: The Making of the Hydogen Bomb and Twilight of the Bombs by Richard Rhodes, 2012 keynote speaker.
  • Black Hawk Down, Guests of the Ayatollah and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden, 2010 keynote speaker
  • Bonk, Packing for MarsSpoof and Stiff by humor writer Mary Roach, 2007 keynote speaker

Session 2 opens at 10 p.m. Central Daylight Time June 27 (Friday) and closes at 10 p.m. July 19 (Saturday).

For more information about the auction, contact For more information about the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, contact Kelly Briggs at

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Finding My Voice Up Where the Air is Clear Sat, 29 Mar 2014 16:02:31 +0000 by Eric Nishimoto

Eric Nishimoto is the 2013 Mayborn Biography Fellow, who just recently returned from his writer-in-residency at Stone Feather Ridge, the home of acclaimed biographer James McGrath Morris and his wife Patty. Here are a few of Eric’s thoughts after two and a half weeks of writing in paradise.

Click here for more information about the Mayborn Biography Fellowship.


Certain terms are much overused. “Hero” is one. “Life changing” is another. Except in my case. Because I’m writing about genuine heroes. And I was privileged to write about them, unencumbered and mentored, for two and a half weeks in just about the most perfect place for any writer, thanks to the Mayborn biography fellowship. So the time was indeed life changing.

James McGrath Morris and Patty Morris live in a phenomenally beautiful home tucked into the Tesuque Pueblo’s idyllic and picturesque hills north of Santa Fe. And each year the Morrises generously open their amazing guest house to the current Mayborn biography fellow. So I sat in my gorgeous casita gazing out at the amazing scenic views while I wrote, researched, reorganized several times, thought and wrote some more. And each evening, as a reward for my day’s work, I dined on gourmet meals prepared by Jamie while chatting with both Jamie and Patty, from whom I learned much about books from the combined wisdom and insight of a great writing coach and a critical reader. I could also go for invigorating walks, howl at the moon if I wanted to, and learn much about the writing craft from both Jamie and the local community of accomplished authors. Capping off the fellowship was my first public reading, at my farewell soiree, to an audience of thirty wonderfully supportive writers, artists and other fascinating people.

Eric's reading at his farewell soiree.

Eric’s reading at his farewell soiree.

So what does it really mean to be a Mayborn biography fellow? For me, it meant having the opportunity to immerse myself in the story so that I completely revised my book outline twice, finally honing in on a previously elusive approach that captures the feel and emotional impact worthy of such a story, thanks to inspiring alone time along with extraordinarily valuable daily feedback and input. And first and second drafts of six out of fourteen chapters, several of which I was able to audition and receive feedback from multiple perspectives via my public reading audience. Beyond that, it meant that I was given my best chance to realize a dream and develop the confidence that I could actually accomplish what I considered almost impossible only weeks, even days, before.  Up in those hills I began to find the writer I hoped I could be, and the book for which I prayed. And for that I will be always grateful to George Getschow, the Mayborn, and Jamie and Patty Morris. This experience will be one that I will hold on to, tightly, forever.

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A Tribute To Larry McMurtry Sun, 23 Mar 2014 22:31:50 +0000 McMurtry4 copy

Larry McMurtry Tribute at the Emerald Eagle Awards <Click to watch Jeff Bridges talk about The Last Picture Show>

It was high time that the University of North Texas honored one of its own, Larry McMurtry, a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist and academy award-winning screenwriter. Along with UNT alumnus Phyllis George (a former Miss America and trailblazing television journalist) and Peter Weller (star of RoboCop Films), Larry joined a distinguished group of Emerald Eagle Honorees.

Larry was born into a ranching family in Archer City, but he didn’t care for the ranching life. He dreamed of becoming a writer and professor. At UNT, Larry hoped “to make some weird combination of writer-rancher-professor out of myself,” as he wrote in his undergraduate “Abridged Autobiography.”

He wrote fiction, poetry and essays about everything but the ranching life he had escaped. He also wrote fifty-two short stories that he felt were so bad he burned them. Reluctantly, he returned to his cowboy roots, writing a short story about the destruction of a diseased cattle herd, another about a cattleman’s funeral. Then he began weaving the short stories together and expanding them into a novel that he worked on during the summer of 1958 in Archer City after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of North Texas.

The novel, Horseman, Pass By, is autobiographical, exploring Larry’s deep internal conflicts with the cowboy culture, the disharmony in his family, the loss of the open range and the emergence of the oil patch with its materialistic values.

The book created a stir in the literary world when it was published in 1961 and launched Larry’s career as a writer. “Never before had a writer portrayed the contemporary West in conflict with the Old West in such stark, realistic, unsentimental ways,” raved the publisher.

The setting seems cut out of the McMurtry Ranch on Idiot Ridge, with a cast of characters not unlike the ones Larry lived and worked with during his long days atop a saddle. The novel reveals Larry’s deep reverence for the land and the old cowboys who devoted themselves to it. It also reveals Larry’s repulsion for the violence, the sentimentality, the small mindedness and other dark elements of the ranching ethos that produced in Larry “an ambivalence as deep as the bone,” as he described it In a Narrow Grave. (To read more about Larry’s life as a rancher and writer, click on the link to our story. The Rancher and the Writer.

Larry’s next novel, The Last Picture Show, remains a literary and cinematic masterpiece. The coming-of-age novel was filmed in Archer City more than 40 years ago. It’s one-blinking light, bedraggled appearance and mournful wind was as much a part of the story as the semi-autographical characters that inhabit the novel. The Last Picture Show also scewered the small mindedness and other dark elements of small-town life. The dialogue was pitch perfect, like the lyrics of a classic country song. “Larry’s a wonderful storyteller,” says Jeff Bridges. “As an actor, I can’t remember saying any better dialogue than Larry’s.”

Most readers around the world recognize Larry as one of Texas’s greatest novelists. But few realize that the true love of his life is buying and selling books. Though he auctioned off the lion’s share of his King Ranch-size book holdings two years ago, Larry still operates one of the country’s largest antiquarian book stores in Archer City called Booked Up and remains a legend among book dealers around the country.

In receiving an Academy Award in 2006 for his screenplay, Brokeback Mountain, Larry held up his Academy Award to all of his brethren in the book world. “Thanks to all the booksellers of the world,” he said. “Remember, Brokeback Mountain was a book before it became a movie. From the humblest paperback exchange to the masters of the great bookstores of the world, all are contributors to the survival of the culture of the book, a wonderful culture, which we mustn’t loose.”

Today, Larry and his bookstore are still inspiring UNT students to take up the writing life. Following the close of the Mayborn Conference each year, George Getschow, the Mayborn’s writer-in-residence, leads a group of Mayborn graduate students and a few nationally renowned writers from the conference to Archer City to practice literary nonfiction in Larry’s homeplace. In the tradition of Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, the writers, assembled at the Spur Hotel, quickly disperse in all directions from the corner of Center and Main to chat with the locals, closely observe their customs and way of life and craft stories from their interviews and observations. To remind them of the importance of storytelling to the community, Getschow encourages his students to carry copies of Larry’s favority book, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, with them wherever they go.

The Archer City Writers Workshop is “one of the most coveted classes UNT students can take,” says a voice in the UNT film tribute to Larry as a photo of the students attending last summer’s Archer City Writers Workshop appears in the film. “Each summer, the chosen few will immerse themselves in the writings of McMurtry and others and eventually meet the man himself.”

Larry has also inspired another literary legacy that UNT students hope will endure forever — this website, “Center & Main: Stories from the Heart of McMurtry Country.” It’s our hub for a world-wide converation about storytelling in the digital age, but rooted in the age-old tradition of families and friends sharing stories over a table in small-town diner. We hope Center & Main, like Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, offers, as Larry puts it, “the potential for storytelling of the sort Walter Benjamin favored.”

Editor’s Note:

Larry couldn’t attend the Emerald Eagle Awards ceremony. So George Getschow, the founder of the Archer City Writers Workshop, accepted the Emerald Eagle’s medallion on Larry’s behalf. “It was the most embarrassing moment of my life,” says Getschow. “Standing in for Larry is like a fly standing in for an elephant.” For anyone interested in reading more about the event, click <here>

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Fossils Fri, 14 Feb 2014 19:50:46 +0000 by Elizabeth Langton

Photographs by Danny Fulgencio

Jack Loftin guides his hulking sedan west through town while I sit in the passenger seat, clutching a tote bag packed with a notebook, tape recorder, camera, pens, water bottle and sunscreen. A cooler containing our lunch—ham on white, assembled by Jack’s wife—rests in the backseat. A pickax and a dead rattlesnake are stashed in the trunk. We seem woefully ill-prepared for our expedi­tion.

Loftin 1As we leave the town behind, the desert-like landscape stretches all around us—looking nothing like the sandy dunes traversed by Lawrence of Arabia but more like the outskirts of Vegas where movie mobsters dump the bodies. Jack steers onto a private dirt road and drives another minute or two before pulling off to park near a Jeep and pickup truck. I hear voices but see no one. Jack leads me to the edge of an embankment. I spot our quarry—four men digging in the hillside shaded by a blue tarp.

Archer City, Texas is a town of 1,834 people about 140 miles northwest of Dallas. It’s the seat of Archer County—both named for Branch Tanner Archer, a leading figure in the Texas Revolution and Republic of Texas. Ranching, hunting and oil dominate the present-day economy, though most locals look elsewhere for work. Businesses include a small grocery, a handful of restaurants, two inns, thrift shops, oil field suppliers, the Royal Theater and the sprawling bookshops owned by Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning author Larry McMurtry. The town is both a community for the longtime ranching families and a “country” home for commut­ers working in nearby Wichita Falls. McMurtry, who grew up on a ranch outside town known as Idiot Ridge, brought acclaim to Archer City through his writing. The town’s ranching heritage and cowboy culture inspired his Westerns, including his epic novel Lonesome Dove. He relied on its more modern incarnation to cre­ate Thalia, the fictional town in The Last Picture Show.

In 1876, while traveling Texas collecting plant samples, Swiss botanist Jacob Boll stumbled upon an ancient amphibian’s skull in Archer County. Eryops was a 200-pound carnivore who resembled an alligator with a flat head and snub nose. The fossil was the first discovered from the pre-Jurassic era Permian period—more than 250 million years ago and before dinosaurs walked the earth. The discovery ignited a paleontological gold rush in Texas. In two years, Boll collected fossils of more than 30 previously undiscov­ered species for noted paleontologist E.D. Cope, who discovered and named more than 1,000 vertebrates during his career. He and paleontologist O.C. March battled for 15 years to outdo each other fossil finding, a feud that became known as “The Bone Wars.” A steady stream of collectors converged on Archer County over the next 40 years. Alfred S. Romer of Harvard first visited in 1926. For more than 40 years, he visited annually—sometimes bringing his students, sometimes staying a month or more—to excavate in Archer County’s Geraldine bone bed, a Permian fossil gold mine that he discovered.

In the scientific world, Archer County is renowned as the world’s most prolific source for remains of “sail lizards,” a group of prehistoric reptilian-looking creatures known for the fin-like growths along their spines. Museums all over the world, includ­ing New York’s American Museum of Natural History and Paris’s National Museum of Natural History, display Archer County fossils. One of the finds, an eel-like aquatic predator, was branded Archeria. The fossils of Archer County have helped researchers close the gaps in our evolutionary tale.

Yet Archer City, with its Western folklore and its McMurtry myths, remains largely indifferent to its pre-Jurassic past. A few monuments about town commemorate Archer’s role in evolution­ary history: dusty displays in the county museum; a sail lizard among the cowboys in a mural on the Dairy Queen wall. The customers who wander in for a DQ Bacon Cheese Grill Burger and a hand-dipped cone don’t seem much interested in the lifeforms plying their landscape 250 million years ago.. Instead they pay homage to the Old West, with their annual Archer City Rodeo and parade. But what defines the history of a place? Only our stories? Human stories? Or maybe we should think more about the ancient lizard-like creatures who walked here before us. Only Jack Loftin, the county historian, born here 82 years ago, appears interested in linking the two worlds.

My exploration of Archer County’s history starts in an obvious place—the Archer County Museum, a former jail. One block north of the courthouse square and adjacent to a farm equipment grave yard of sorts, is the jail, a three-story, sandstone structure erected in 1910. The sheriff’s family once lived on the first floor. Prisoners resided on the floors above, near a never-used hanging gallery. The first prisoner was a horse thief.

The door pushes open with a creak into the museum’s “lobby,” a 10-by-10 room crammed with furniture and cooled by a grinding window air conditioner. As she does every weekend, volunteer cu­rator Mary Ann Levy waits here for visitors. Jack Loftin, slouched in a wooden chair, keeps her company. Admission is free, but Mary Ann asks me to sign the visitors’ log.

I pass from the lobby into the “exhibit halls,” a maze of rooms stuffed with remnants of Archer County’s past: maps and photos, jars and soda bottles, furniture and clothes. The first display to greet me is a full Diadectes skeleton mounted in a homemade, glass-topped wooden case painted aqua. The skeleton’s label is handwritten in permanent marker directly on the case itself.

Diadectes roamed the Texas Plains 140 million years before dino­saurs arrived. Renderings depict him as resembling a pot-bellied lizard, but don’t mistake him for the English-accented, insurance-selling gecko variety. A full-grown Diadectes stretched up to 6 feet long and weighed 200 pounds.

Jack discovered his Diadectes near Archer County’s southern bor­der in 1980. I examine the assembled vertebrae, rib and leg bones, trying to imagine the herbivore lumbering among swamps—a vegetarian crocodile with the personality of a cow. I ignore the skull; I know it’s a fake. A few days earlier, two fellow writers and I sat around the kitchen table in Jack’s tin-roofed ranch house east of town for an introduction to Diadectes. Jack—rancher by birth, engineer by trade, historian by inclination—is also an amateur paleontologist with a few important fossil finds to his name.

Jack’s wife, Marie, retrieved a 1.5-foot square black box, a trea­sure chest of sorts, from underneath a desk in the adjoining room and carried it to the table. As her husband narrated, she unpacked the box. “This is a knife,” Jack said of a Native American tool crafted from flint. “Here’s another knife. Here’s an arrow. I have lots of arrows. … And here’s the real head.” He deposited a rocklike item about the size of a grapefruit onto the table. The skull bore the features of a horror-movie monster—canine-esqe shape, hollow eye sockets and bared, overlapping teeth.

“Aww, he’s cute,” said one of my companions, giving the creature an affectionate pat. “Do you have a name for it, Jack?” “Diadectes,” he replied. Jack may count the head among his prize possessions, but he’s not one for christening his finds with cute pet names like Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex or Gertie the Chindesaurus Bryansmalli (both are real, by the way).

Back in the museum, the wooden floorboards moan as I move into the first display room and find an Eryops skeleton mounted on a saw horse with his head atop an empty cabinet. The next room, dubbed the library and prehistoric room, holds an odd as­sortment including dusty soda bottles, an aged printing press and skeletons of the sail lizards Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus. Typed labels turning yellow identify some exhibits, while sloppily hand-printed signs mark others. A folder decorated with foam letters resembling a child’s craft project offers fossil instruction. On the middle shelf of a case lining the western wall rests what looks like a large, flat, black stone. It’s another fake head: a replica of that first discovered Permian fossil.

Jack assembled these displays—a testament to Archer County’s place in scientific discovery. His book, Trails Through Archer, is the source on Archer County’s history. He and his wife compile cem­etery surveys for genealogy research, and Jack has marked historical sites all over the county with handmade markers. He believes that fossils extracted from these lands should stay here, but most don’t. Boll’s Eryops head reportedly went to the American Museum of Natural History, along with thousands of samples collected by Cope and his teams. Some were studied and later displayed. Some were packed away to await a scientist with time to probe them.

The American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, occupies four city blocks fronting New York’s Central Park. Per­manent exhibits include geological specimens, animal dioramas, fossils, a planetarium and the famous 94-foot blue whale model that dangles from the ceiling in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. Hundreds of visitors swarm under the cathedral ceiling of the main lobby—the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda—greeted by the world’s tallest freestanding mount of a dinosaur, Barosaurus, with its elongated, skinny neck stretched 100 feet above their heads. But the museum is more than a display space, it’s also a laboratory and research facility—a scientific holy land that draws scientists, anthropologists, historians and others to study its collections—and sponsor 100-plus field expeditions each year.

I enter via the museum’s back door—the subway level—missing the rotunda’s grandeur. I want to see what the public doesn’t: the museum’s expansive archives. The museum holds more than 32 million specimens (4.75 million of them fossils), displaying only a fraction at any given time. Publicist Kristin Phillips whisks me to the fifth floor, an area outside the public domain, to meet Carl Me­hling, manager of the paleontology department’s amphibian, reptile and birds fossil collection. Carl has agreed to help me hunt for the first Archer County fossil: the Eryops head discovered by Boll. He leads us on a brisk walk through wide, high-ceilinged hallways lined with rows and rows of 4-foot tall lockers stacked two high. Each one is filled with specimens—fossils, modern invertebrates, mammals and more.

We climb to the sixth floor and enter a room about the size of a basketball court filled with more lockers. We pass a researcher examining fossils at a table and move to the last row where Carl opens a cabinet marked “Eryops.” Three-inch deep wooden trays, mounted on track-like drawers, fill the cabinet. Carl matches the catalog number he retrieved from the computer database to one of the drawers and slides it out. “I’m not even sure what we’re looking at here,” he says.

The drawer holds multiple small fossils; “jaw fragments,” reads one ID card. Definitely not Boll’s Eryops skull. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have it,” Carl says, “it just means if we do have it, someone didn’t put the word Boll into the database.” He scans the drawer tags, looking for the word skull. “Oh, that’s beautiful,” Kristin exhales, as he withdraws another tray. The intact skull fills the entire drawer. It’s not an Archer County sample; but Boll collected it in Wichita County, just one county to the north. “God, that’s awesome,” Carl says as we all examine the wide, flat head with eye sockets high on its face.

Loftin 2Carl opens other lockers, discovering drawer after drawer of fossils collected from Archer and surrounding counties by Boll and W.F. Cummins, who both worked for Cope during the late1800s. Many of the samples remain untouched since their acquisition, awaiting a curious researcher. “You can see with a place this rich,” Carl says, “it was collect first; collect, collect, collect. And someday when somebody’s hysterically interested in Eryops, they’ll have a field day.” In lockers on the next row, we find more samples from Texas: Diadectes, Dimetrodon, Edaphosaurus, Seymouria (a smaller Permian era amphibian named for the town of Seymour). “We have a lot of Dimetrodon,” Carl says. “That’s everybody’s favorite. It’s so well loved that it gets into all the collections of little dinosaur toys. It bridges the gap because it’s cool, not because it’s a dinosaur.” He pulls out more drawers, hoping to show me an intact skull of one of these creatures. “Last cabinet; cross your fingers,” Carl says. “It’s like a lottery,” I reply. Alas, no jackpot. The cabinet contains nothing from Archer.

We leave the collection room and navigate a maze of hallways and stairwells connecting two of the museum’s 25 buildings. Carl takes us down a stairwell and past a velvet rope meant to keep visi­tors from leaving the public exhibits and wandering into museum workspaces. The museum’s fossil halls inhabit all of the fourth floor’s public space, and Carl maneuvers through the crowds of tourists and schoolchildren like an aggressive taxi in heavy traffic. The museum labels itself a “field guide to the entire planet,” and in the primitive mammals hall, we encounter Archer’s contribution: a reconstructed skeleton of the sail lizard Edaphosaurus collected by Romer, the Harvard paleontologist, from the Geraldine bone bed. Carl and Kristin leave me to explore the rest of the museum on my own. Even though I didn’t find Boll’s elusive Eryops head, I’m delighted with the results of my treasure hunt. I found evidence of Archer County’s important contribution to scientific discovery, one that’s ongoing.

German paleontologist Martin Sander first visited the bone beds of Archer County in 1982 while earning his master’s at the University of Texas-Austin. He conducted his thesis research here and returns periodically to resume digging. Two students and an amateur joined him on his latest excavation in September 2010 on private land west of Archer City. I’ve agreed to keep the location secret; Jack fears fossil poachers if word gets out. I perch on a large rock under the tarp canopy to watch Chris Shelton, who grew up in nearby Iowa Park, chip dirt away from the hillside. Chris earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Midwestern State University and moved to Germany to work toward a doctorate in paleontology under Martin. “The main purpose is to get materials for Chris’ study but also for teaching purposes,” Martin says.

The men don’t tolerate my passive observer role for long. “If you want to write about it, you have to do it,” Martin says as he carves a drainage channel into the site with a pickax. “I’m not going to make you do the pick work, but you have to dig.” I plop into the dirt, and Chris equips me with my digging tools: a small paint­brush and the hooked metal tool dentists use to scrape tartar from teeth. “There’s a bone there you can dig out, a vertebrae,” Chris says. I tentatively poke at the dirt, trying to distinguish dirt from rock from bone. As I practice my digging technique, I learn the purpose behind the rattlesnake, which Jack had killed that morning near his garage. Team members Koen Stein and Herman Winkel­horst pose for photos with the snake draped around their necks. “That’s what they wanted to see most, a rattlesnake,” Martin says. Fossil excavating is strenuous, tedious, hot—and often fruitless—work. I unearth a handful of fragments no bigger than a grape. Luckily Martin’s team fared better during their weeklong dig. They amassed hundreds of samples large and small, including a Dimetro­don skull, that they ship to the University of Bonn, where Martin teaches and Chris and Koen study.

Fossils from Archer County—both those collected a century ago and those gathered last year—continue to enhance scientific understanding. Martin wrote about Archer bone beds during his master’s work more than 20 years ago. Though his research has strayed outside Permian era animals—he’s co-curator of a new American Museum of Natural History exhibit on Sauropods, the world’s largest dinosaurs—Archer fossils still impact his research. “Today I’m interested in the big questions of evolution, like extinction and the origin of warm-bloodedness,” he says. “When Chris came and wanted to do something with Permian, I combined that with my interest.” Chris has presented his early findings at two international conferences. Jack regularly conducts tours of Archer’s fossil sites for both amateur and professional paleontologists.

To scientists, the prehistoric amphibians of Archer County mean something—even 135 years after their discovery and nearly 300 million years after they lived. “I have to go there,” Carl from the American Museum of Natural History told me as we hunted the archives for Archer fossils. “I want to find things like this.” But to everyone else, they’re an interesting oddity or, more likely, simply unknown. Except to Jack. He continues to talk about Archer’s Permian past to anyone who will listen. He keeps collecting his own fossils, reassembling the bones like puzzle pieces at a work sta­tion in his living room. He has weaved these otherworldly, lizard-looking creatures into his hometown’s story. Jack, 82, still works the ranchland where his family settled in the 1870s, when the first permanent residents arrived, and his memory remains sharp. But he can’t stand sentinel of Archer County’s past forever, and once he’s gone, the town will likely go on with its Western ways, slowly forgetting what originally put them on the map.


Beth LangtonElizabeth Langton is a veteran newspaper reporter, editor, freelance journalist and teacher. She has covered agriculture, religion, health, demographics and four executions. At the Dallas Morning News, she wrote about amputee athletes, a district attorney turned felon, a failing state pension fund and letters to Santa Claus. Her work has won numerous awards including tops honors from the Texas and New Mexico Associated Press Managing Editors and two Gavel Awards from the State Bar of Texas. A 2004 award-winning story prompted a Texas attorney general’s opinion regarding health privacy and open records laws.

Langton earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas and later returned to study narrative journalism with Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference writer-in-residence George Getschow. She contributed to a student-produced, award-winning series about the national health care law and attended the Archer City Writers Workshop in 2010.





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The Bird Lady of Archer City Mon, 06 Jan 2014 15:25:47 +0000 by Kathy Floyd

Char & babiesChar Burton takes a bird named Beauty out of one of the large cages stacked in her living room. She sweet talks to Beauty and they give each other little beak-to-lip kisses. Beauty is an Eclectus Parrot with a gorgeous scarlet head, but her torso has no feathers, just dark splotchy down as she goes through a molting cycle. Beauty is only one of the 40 or so residents in Char’s avian world. Asking Char if she has a favorite is like asking a parent which child they love the most. Every one of her growing flock of birds is her “favorite.”  With Beauty, it’s her personality.

Locals call Char “The Bird Lady of Archer City.” Char doesn’t mind being known as the Bird Lady. She doesn’t even mind when some people put the word “crazy” in front of bird lady. She knows that her collection of birds isn’t normal. But everything about birds fascinates Char — their brilliant colors and fancy feathers, their personalities, that some have hurts that need healing just as humans do.

Char’s manufactured house in northwest Archer City sits on the diagonal of her corner lot, her front door not directly facing one street or the other. She keeps five or six birds inside her house between the kitchen and living area, the cages forming a room divider. Along with the usual decor of ivy and framed homey sayings on the wall, the living room has a large swing with little baubles hanging on it for the birds to peck at. She has stacks of books on birds, but says she doesn’t read them merely as instruction manuals. She reads about birds because to her, they are interesting. Another 13 birds live in protected cages outside and 25, give or take a few, in an outbuilding she calls the birdhouse just across the patio from her back door. Her menagerie includes a variety of tropical parrots, cockatiels, cockatoos, and other exotic birds.

Pieces of Char’s short, curly graying hair have escaped the pins intended to hold them back and they hang in wisps around her round face. She’s 61 years old, and the lines at the corners of her eyes deepen when she smiles. Something in her voice and laugh makes you think of the comedian Rosanne Barr.

At Char’s house, most conversations tend to be between her and her birds. The birds give their opinions with chirps, squawks and even words — sometimes random, sometimes an echo of a word just spoken. As Char mentions the color red, a voice repeats “red” several times, changing its inflection to make plain old red sound like it needs an exclamation point, then a question mark.

Although Char’s fascination with birds began long ago when a family friend gave her his parakeet before he went off to Vietnam, her collection in Archer City started with Mr. BB, a citron cockatoo. He had been taken back to the breeder because a male in the former owner’s household would tease the bird, and as a result, Mr. BB hated men. Char worked part time at Nature’s Half Acre, a former pet store and animal refuge between Wichita Falls and Archer City. Mr. BB bonded with Char. He would fly to her when she passed by and wanted to be near her when she was at work. When a man came into the store and wanted to buy him, Char warned him that Mr. BB wasn’t a man’s bird. Sure enough, he bit the man, drawing blood. Everyone had been telling Char she needed to buy Mr. BB, so she did, right before the man came back into the store to buy him. She calls Mr. BB her baby.

Then there was this Patagonian Conure that Char bought from someone who had to get rid of the bird. “She has such a personality,” Char says. “She belches, she makes all kinds of noises. She’s a character.” So it became the chant in the store, “Just give it to Char, she’ll take anything,” and her collection multiplied as she took in strays and unwanted birds, then began searching for mates for them.

Corky, one of Char’s flock, had emotional problems caused by 20 years in a dark cage with no interaction. She had a hole in her chest from self-mutilation. She continually plucked all her feathers out. A vet told Char that Corky would never be a pretty bird, but to Char she was beautiful. After Char’s care, Corky thrived. Char would take her to parties and to visit friends at barbecues. Corky would go for months without plucking her feathers out, but then something would trigger her pain and she would begin pulling her feathers out again, and one day this past summer when Char was at work, Corky bled to death after plucking a feather in a blood vessel. As Char reminisces about Corky, she tears up. “Corky was a character, that girl.”

the babies

Char identifies with birds and humans that have been scarred, physically or emotionally. Helping those birds heal is more than just a hobby, Char says, it’s her destiny. She may not always know what caused the hurt, but she knows that by giving them love and care she can try to reverse the damage done. She runs an unofficial bird hospital, nursing sick birds for their owners, giving progress reports by sending photos of the healing birds to their people. She puts those with health problems on special diets.

Part of Char’s childhood was spent in California, and part in a small mining town in Nevada. When she and her sisters were just barely out of their toddler years, their mother would dress them up in their Sunday dresses and they would drive to visit one of their mother’s friends in California’s Soledad Prison. The girls would sit on the man’s lap, and he would put his hands underneath their pretty dresses and fondle them. After he was released from prison, Char’s mother married him, and the abuse continued until Char was 11 or 12 years old, and he was sent back to prison.

Shut up,” says a voice from a cage.

The birds know when Char is uneasy. They don’t like it when the talk turns to her childhood. Rocco, a green male Eclectus, squawks so loudly that talk is impossible. Char takes him out of the cage to sooth him, but Kiki begins a shrill squealing that is louder than Rocco’s calls.

There was parts of my childhood that weren’t so nice,” Char says. Even though 50 years have passed since the abuse, the pitch of her voice rises and quivers, and she flicks tears off her cheeks. The pauses between sentences grows longer. “But I had good parts too. It was a part of my life and that’s just the way it was. You never put it behind you because it’s there.

Years later, when Char was pregnant with her son, she was haunted with dreams that her molester was going to come and take her child, even though he was still locked up. She knew it didn’t make sense, but her dreams led to sleeplessness and depression. She was frantic. When she learned that her molester had died in prison, it was like a load was lifted, and she never dreamed about him again.

Char overcame her childhood scars through counseling. “That was the most influential thing in my life, not the molestation, not the dysfunctional home life. It was the counseling. It [abuse] doesn’t have to be what your life pivots around,” she says. “There’s no “poor Char” here,” she says.

That’s right,” says a voice.

As Char takes Rocco out of his cage, she says that birds love to be with their people. They make you part of their flock. She rotates the birds in and out of the house every few days so they all get to spend quality time near her, and she can spend quality time with all of them.

Rocco snuggles his head under Char’s chin and she pets his head and back. Rocco has a special problem — he thinks Char is his mate. Rocco begins the avian equivalent of humping as he cuddles up to Char. She scolds him and puts him back in the cage with Beauty, his intended mate. Char is partial to the green birds. The reds are beautiful, but the greens, she says, are gorgeous.

In life before Archer City, Char lived in Ketchikan, Alaska, where she owned a jewelry store. She left the thick forests and fords of Ketchikan for the scraggly landscape of West Texas to make a change. Her children were here — her daughter lives in Olney and her son is Archer City’s police chief. Coming to a small town, living in one and liking it can be tough for someone who doesn’t have deep roots in the dry dirt.

But Char cherishes the small-town community atmosphere, even though there are times when she feels like she’s living in a bird cage herself. For a short time, Char lived in the Caribbean where she befriended a local woman who made her brightly colored caftans to wear. She would hike to places where she could see the same birds kept in cages here fly free. “I was in heaven,” she says. 

After Char’s granddaughter started to school, she had too much time on her hands and her family told her she needed to find a job. Because of her jewelry store experience, she applied at jewelry stores and she also applied at North Texas State Hospital in Wichita Falls, a mental health facility. She got a call back from a jewelry company, and one from the hospital.

Char says she moved to Texas needing a change, and decided to take the hospital job. She is a psychiatric nurse aid in the social behavior program, one of the least desirable units, working with patients who can be violent. When she was first assigned there, others warned her that the unit was a bad place, the worst. Quitting crossed her mind, but more than 12 years later, she’s still there. Not that there aren’t days when she doesn’t question her decision, but she loves helping people who are so troubled they are locked up. At work, when conditions lean toward the dramatic, Char will lead the conversation toward birds. She is known as the Bird Lady at work, too.

Sometimes, Char thinks her past is an asset. When I ask her if it’s okay to include her childhood in her story, she gives her consent on the chance that it might help someone else. Maybe someone will get help. Maybe someone will see that the pain doesn’t have to rule. Maybe someone will see that healing is possible after the hurt. She picks up on both molesters and those who have been molested. “I have patients out there who have never told me they’ve been molested, but I know that they have,” and she shuts her eyes as she imagines the hurts that have led to their condition today.

Char & RoccoChar’s former husband’s mother is part of her human flock. She won’t call her an ex mother-in-law — and “Granny,” or Jeane Burton, won’t call Char an ex daughter-in-law. Granny tells people that her son and Char may have gotten divorced 30 years ago, but she and Char never got divorced. Whenever Granny introduces Char, she identifies her as the mother of her grandchildren. Char takes Granny to the stores in Wichita Falls when she needs to, she helps with her two dogs, and sometimes Granny helps Char with the birds when she has a lot of babies to feed. Granny has known Char since she was a teenager, and she has been a mother figure for Char. Now, they each call the other their best friend. As for the birds, Granny laughs and says, “I think she’s insane! I think they’re noisy buggers, but she loves them so much.”

Char wants to show a visitor some of the birds outside in the birdhouse, but the presence of a stranger ruffles some feathers. Opening the door sets off a loud reaction of cries, crazed chirps and squawks. Some of the birds are sitting on eggs and make clear with all their squawking that they do not wish to be disturbed.

Back in the house, Char mixes up some pablum and takes two baby Amazons out of a cage, puts them on the kitchen table and sits down to feed them with an eye dropper.

Paaablum,” says a less than human voice from behind us.

Just a few months ago Char had 24 babies to feed, most because a friend couldn’t feed her own birds. Char cooks boiled eggs, pasta, potatoes, carrots and celery for the birds. She feeds the older birds a combination of nuts and fruits like trail mix. She spends at least $50 (free shipping!) every two weeks online Drs. Foster and Smith on foods such as Birdie Banquet, little heat-and-eat meals like TV dinners for birds.

Meow,” says a voice during the food talk. Then the voice begins the Meow Mix cat food commercial jingle, “Meow, meow, meow, meow.” The meowing continues. From somewhere comes a wolf whistle.

Between boarding and breeding, Char says most of the birds pay their own way at her house. For some of the birds, Char’s house is only a way station. She uses a network of friends, acquaintances, pet store owners and the Senior Citizen Center to find homes for birds whose owners can’t keep them anymore. When she sells birds, she will make out a detailed instruction sheet for the new owners and she makes calls to find out how the babies are doing. If she visits a store that wants to buy birds, she won’t sell if she doesn’t like the condition of the store.

Char plans on expanding in the near future. When she retires in four years, she wants to build another house to make room for more birds, more birds to hold and love.

Now Char is giving some love to Coda — a diva of a double yellow-headed Amazon if ever there was one. When Char calls her a pretty girl, Coda gives her yellow head a toss to the side, as if she’s tossing a mane of Farrah Fawcett hair. She says “Hi” in a voice that could belong to a movie starlet, and just like she was addressing her fans, she says, “I love you, heart,” — she can’t say the word “sweet” — when Char calls her a pretty girl.

Come here,” one of the caged birds says.

“Step up, Coda,” Coda tells herself.

Char laughs at Coda’s antics. “She’s a ham. To Coda, it’s all about me.”

Coda keeps talking. “Hi, Coda.” “Step up, Coda.”

Kiki, jealous of the attention Coda is getting, begins her shrill calls again. “Come on, baby,” says another voice. Someone is clucking like a chicken.

A thick growth of morning glory vines covers the porch railing just a step from Char’s front door. It’s covered with purple-blue blossoms even in November. The first time I walked up to the front door, a cloud of sparrows flew out from deep in the vines. I couldn’t believe that so many birds could find shelter in there. Apparently, even wild birds know they’re safe at the Bird Lady’s house.


Kathy Floyd

As early as the third grade, Kathy Floyd knew she wanted to write. After working for the U.S. Postal Service for 16 years, including time as a writer/editor for several Postal Service publications at headquarters in Washington, D.C., she wrote for newspapers and magazines in Cooke, Denton and Grayson counties in Texas. She has won awards from the Texas Press Association for photography and headlines and the Vinson Award for Journalism at MSU in 1991. She now works at MSU as Marketing and Public Information assistant. She has attended the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference since 2008.

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Out of the Fiery Cauldron a Writer Emerges Mon, 16 Dec 2013 05:34:43 +0000 by Amelia Jaycen

When you find that every cell in your body is motivated toward story-telling— as George says, “stories no one else is telling in ways no one else is telling them”—if your protons and neutrons are spinning and all your chemistry has undergone catalysis, it is possibly due to the introduction of a whole lot of Archer City Magic Dust.  In a terrifying trip to the soft center of a new writer, an Archer City student reflects on what she found out about writing and herself on a few dusty roads in the blazing July heat.


Dear George –

I can’t imagine ever being able to put down in words all the things I just learned in Archer City.  I am on fire for my work, the program I’m involved in and where my life is heading. In my brokenness, fear, and pride I don’t dare throw it around or let it out.  The last four years have been an endless list of self-directed ultimatums to calm down, close my mouth, try to fit in, not be extreme and pursue a very serious program that will take me along a path to success and happiness.  It took ten days in the sweltering heat of West Texas in summer for me to understand there is a real power in unleashing fiery passion in an environment bursting with potential.  I suddenly don’t feel like a shaken bottle capped.  I feel like a wildfire that there is no hope of stopping before it consumes what it needs to grow.

I felt at home in Archer City, and I feel I’ve found a home in myself as a writer. The word finally applies to me, the title is mine. I don’t have to feel dissociated between my different sides.  All my characteristics, experiences, habits and ideas are coming together to create a writer, and I can’t stop them. They are fed by their own multiplication and expansion.

The Archer City experience is somehow able to take people with a little bit of drive and a whole lot of doubts and push them over that edge where they find out who they really are, how to feed their experiences and characteristics into a larger purpose—becoming a writer.  And learning to write and report as a lifestyle, not a fleeting thing that comes and goes or must be painfully called up.  The workshop took my guts and grit, skills and problems, energy and fear and let me see what I can do in an ideal situation.

It works because we see highly successful writers at the Mayborn conference, hear their personal stories of struggle & uncertainty, learn how they handle complications and hear their thought processes.  Then we come to Archer City, where we are called “the writer” and we are respected as such, treated by the people as such, encouraged and given the freedom to try our hands within a web of support and short time frame. It is fascinating what comes out of it.  It’s gutsy work produced largely on instinct.  The whole thing brought up a lot more questions, but that is the sign of a successful study: that it stimulates further inquiry, that questions answered generate an energy blast to jump to the next level where more interesting questions await.


I learned a lot about taking notes and jumping in with my notebook out.  This was a huge experiment in how to best take notes in front of a source.  I tried to watch your notes as we spoke to McMurtry.  I couldn’t make much out, but I noticed how you kept writing, even when looking up at him and that it was long, fluid lines of text.  I’d be fascinated to know how many quotes you got, how much is source phrasing and how much is your thoughts.  I suppose note-taking will be different for each and every writer.  I found it worked well to jot snippets that would cue my memory later: source quotes and info on one side of the page and questions I had or associations I made on the other.  This works well, but only if there is time to flesh out the notes soon after.  I took a lot from what Bill said about how he types up his notes every night.  I think I may do this daily from now on before I sleep, put the day down. I learned that in the presence of sources is the best time to write it down, and this takes hard work, discipline and guts.  You have to write at the time with fervor to capture the words and thoughts.  Removed from the source the clarity and intensity of the story fades: audio recorder or not, it won’t be the same next time you listen and recall.  I learned that maybe I don’t so desperately need an audio recorder.  I learned it is completely possible to report richly and thoroughly without one, which is amazing.

I was misguided in thinking that when you’re reporting you must be sneaky and hide as much as possible your note-taking from your source.  I see this is not so.  Or perhaps I see how to report with everything right out on the table, to be unafraid of showing it plainly. I found a balance between comfortable and driving, curious and polite, considerate and natural, valid and participatory. For instance, when asked “So what exactly do ya’ll write about?” the answer is more complex than rodeos, dying towns, broken people, rescue crews, old hotels, tough women and cowboys. The subject is quickly mutilated by simplification into a quick list, stripped of its power. The real power of the stories is found in the details. I couldn’t tell you what I’m writing about unless I write it, make it come alive again, show you.  As a writer I am just a mirror.

I feel that my instincts were tested, and I think I did mostly alright.  The guidebook in my head was challenged, line by line, and new rules added by force through insights I scribbled in a margin as they were revealed and shared among tribesmen. Now that I am outside the moment, with my edited bleeding-red guidebook, I’m trying to justify my thinking with the new rules. But that’s somewhat dramatic. They are not really so changed.  I just saw them for the first time hard in action.

We talked about my reader response piece and the conclusion that sources are readers, often our first readers. We read our pieces aloud where sources, readers, writers and friends were all present, all with different views.  A giant stream of feedback was compressed into one meaningful response: the faces of people you respect and people you just met, people whose lives you tried to capture and then read it to them, your readers, fellow writers, new and old, young kids, tough men, and the dogs, snakes, cats and horses you wrote into your piece are likely listening to you read it as well.  This provided an immediate fact-check with sources, often launching into candid primary-source discussion of more material that expands your understanding of the context of what you wrote. Sharing food and drink, time and traditions with our subjects is a brilliant immersion, a way to quickly get to the heart of their stories.

I also learned a lot about swallowing exasperation while loving stories more than yourself.  I saw writers, sources, and readers allowed to speak and tell their stories, no matter how personal, off-topic or hard to hear the stories might be, and we’d all get to finish before anyone interrupted.  Words were held valuable and a mutual respect ruled the day.  I learned to listen and to take the time to let things go as they will, to just observe, soak things up.  That slowing of time, holding on to every word and noting the intricate details. The inspirations in those activities, interviews, and gatherings was a gift in how to walk straight into the life of a potential source. To sit down, stay a while, drink in the tea and conversation, the surroundings, wrinkles on their face, and notice how often they reach for a butter biscuit or a spouse’s hand and how closely the story on the front of the fridge matches the one you’ve been taking notes on.  Time stands still.  And dozens of people could gather and talk without judgment or room for anything but camaraderie and a shared interest in stories.

I’m inexperienced with the forming and inevitable ending of relationships with my sources.  I learned to love people again there, to see and hear and take people in, be genuinely interested in what they are saying and doing.  I don’t want to lose that and go back to a glazed-over approach, as if holding a wall between me and “them” because of our roles, and thus back to meaningless reporting that lacks human people or emotion.  I am surely a creative, a painfully sensitive writer, and I am possessed by the fascinating people I find to write about.  I love their stories and care deeply about their pain, share their joys and miss it sorely when we are not talking.  But the tragedy of my role as a journalist is the path my sources and I cannot go down together.

Is it this torturous tension that results in stories great enough to transcend black and white print and enter into the souls of readers?  It seems we are victims of this process as much as they, our hearts shredded with each story—the constant cycle of connection and separation.  We are trained to tune in to every detail, understand every nuance. And then, torn from it, we must pull back to the beat of our work, work, work. Feel more, give more of our souls in empathy, scrape clear to the depths of ourselves for words that will capture things as they really are and find a universal message to share along the way. Without our sources, without the passionate outpouring of ourselves and the wrenching of our souls we would have nothing important to write.

Interestingly enough, some of our readers have begun to write about us and many more sure would love to be able to write what the traveling tribe of writers means to them, how it affects their lives and transforms their thinking.

“Having ya’ll come just opens up my mind, every year . . .” –Jackie

“It is interesting to hear an outsider’s perspective on us and see yourself in that mirror.” –Lynda

Are we hearing from our friends, cohorts, followers of our tribe? An affected audience, a visited lover?  I don’t know, but my head’s spinning.  I have so many notes and pictures and recordings, and I want to put off life and dive in.  The tribe’s been discussing how much material we still have to go through, process, write about.

Perhaps that’s why I’m spewing ideas and leads and overflowing with questions, why I can’t let go.  Jackie took one look at me and said “You look tired.  You never put all this down, did you?  You went home and just kept holding on to the time?”

“Of course I did! I’m brimming with ideas and there’s so much to do!”

“But you have to have the lows,” she said “or the highs lose their meaning.”

She made good sense, and I was stricken with the truth:  I love my work so much I strangle it, micro-manage it, deliberate it to death in my effort to craft it well. I clench my fists tightly around it like a screaming child with fistfuls of clay who cannot hear the reasons it might just be better to let go a little, so it will stop crumbling on the floor.


I want to wield instinct well, brandish my notebook and be able to explain and defend my methodology.  I need a mentor, a lot of them.  I want to learn more about how these extremes can meet and work.  I can see a little of it, but it is still hazy in the mist.  I feel I’ve finally found kindred writers, and I am beginning to understand.  I think I’ve figured out how to be a writer and how, exactly, to make it fit—fit me.  I learned, I was tested.  I’ve got stories, ammo, been fueled up, been fired in the kiln, stretched in the brain, physically pushed and been considering it all.  And damn if I don’t feel like a writer, notice I’m doing a writer’s work, see myself sliding up/down a writer’s path.  It’s all falling together as long as I keep feeding it energy and ideas.  I was the loudest voice of doubt in the beginning, fighting with a vengeance the idea that Archer City would change a damn thing about how I think about myself as a writer.  Now I see it clearly. Explaining my transformation fully is another matter.

I understand now what this means to you. I see why Archer City matters, why Mayborn is a big deal. Despite all your insistence that the success of the workshop has nothing to do with you and is not about you, you have created something with the Archer City experience that is beautiful in its intricate design.  I understand it is almost effortless (the design, not the work), which is why Bill said what he did about how “everything George does has a cunning plan, whether George knows it or not.”

I also experienced firsthand the fire in your belly that both consumes and lights you up.  I’d guess your fiery little protons and neutrons are spinning due to the introduction of a whole lot of Archer City Magic Dust.  Every cell in your body is motivated and energized toward story-telling, “stories no one else is telling in ways no one else is telling them.”  I understand you can’t bear credit for that which happens in the nucleus of your cells, so I’ll only make you sit through one, big, heartfelt thanks.  Thanks for being such a good friend, great teacher, honorable example, and true mentor, and thank you for a wonderful July.

Until next time,




Amelia Jaycen


Amelia Jaycen is a Center & Main staff member and 2013 alum of the Archer City Writer’s Workshop.  She is a student and graduate assistant in the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas.  She worked as an online science reporter for the UNT Office of Research, the UNT Center for Community and Environmental Journalism and was a reporter for the Somerville Star at the age of 16. Jaycen has managed the self-produced since 2009. “I wasn’t a writer until I went to Archer City.  It taught me how to write with grit and temper and to always remember the human heart.”

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The Love Song of Larry J. McMurtry: The Last Picture Show Mon, 25 Nov 2013 06:16:25 +0000 by Greg Giddings, Midwestern State University

(Originally published in JASAT)

In 1966, Larry McMurtry (in)famously dedicated his third novel with these words: “The Last Picture Show is lovingly dedicated to my home town.”  Both readers and commentators through the years have assumed that McMurtry was speaking ironically in that dedication, as McMurtry’s description of Thalia, the novel’s fictionalized name for Archer City, is hardly flattering. In fact, Lera Patrick Tyler Lich, author of Larry McMurtry’s Texas: Evolution of Myth, claims that

The Last Picture Show was written at least in part to expel the hostility [McMurtry] felt for Archer City. Even though the stimulus for writing this novel may have been a recent visit to his hometown, an antipathy toward Archer City had existed for years. His experiences there as a youth and in urban San Francisco and Houston as an adult produced a bitter realism about small-town citizens and their values. The fictional consequence of McMurtry’s animosity is a satire on religion, manners, education, and sex in small-town Texas. (21)

downloadA majority of readers typically concur with Lich, noting McMurtry’s aforementioned use of satire, as well as parody and caricature in critiquing his hometown. Yet a few readers dissent, and those who do see past the vitriol to glimpse visages of hope in The Last Picture Show. In particular, Roger Walton Jones, author of  Larry McMurtry and the Victorian Novel, says, “Despite [McMurtry’s] unsparing portrait of Archer City, including its boredom, isolation, empty sex, materialism, inadequate role models, and above all, suffocation by fundamentalist religion, McMurtry found grounds for hope in the stubborn resiliency of the human spirit and its capacity for love” (25). As Jones clearly chronicles, McMurtry’s novel is replete with criticism of small town life. Nevertheless, Jones, unlike most, still relishes the novel’s occasional passages of hope and optimism.

Maybe most interestingly, McMurtry himself, in preparing to co-write the screenplay for the 1971 film version of the novel, found elements in his text that apparently were unintended: “In rereading the book, I had decided that, despite my efforts at savage satire, I had still somehow romanticized the place and the people” (Film Flam 22). Clearly, McMurtry had not intended to temper his satiric look at Archer City with sentimentalism.  And yet, that subtle hopefulness in the novel is emphasized in the film. In fact, because of this thematic shift and director Peter Bogdanovich’s filming, particularly the close-ups on hands, the film is significantly more aesthetically pleasing and hopeful than the novel.

On the surface, the film and novel seem to vary little, unsurprising considering Bogdanovich’s comments in 1999 about the screenwriting process that the director and novelist engaged in: “Writing the script was really not so much writing the script as going through the book and deciding what was going to remain and what was going to be cut out. . . . It was really a question of winnowing out what we were going to keep” (A Look Back). Besides staying true to the basic plot of the novel, the film also takes much of its dialogue from the novel as well, despite attempts to improve it. Bogdanovich explains:

All the basic dialogue was as it was–pretty much as it was in the book. When we were doing the script, I would say to Larry, “You know the scene. You wanna try another pass at it? I mean it’s good in the book, but, why don’t you do it again?” So he’d write it again.  I’d read it.  I’d say, “It’s better in the book.” He’d say, “Then use the book.” And that’s what happened numerous times. (A Look Back)


The success of the screenplay is certainly ironic considering that the reputation of McMurtry’s novel has diminished over the years. Iain Crawford notes that The Last Picture Show and the other so-called Thalia novels, Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne, were “[m]uch praised upon their original publication . . . .[T]hey have come to be seen as the uncertain products of those apprentice years during which their author apparently wore a t-shirt [or sweatshirt] bearing the self-deprecating motif, “Minor Regional Novelist” (43).  McMurtry, who is infamously dismissive of his own work, says that during the screenwriting process he did not share Bogdanovich’s excitement about the original novel: “Watching this enthusiasm mount, for a book I could hardly stand, was a little like watching the approach of madness . . . “ (Film Flam 21).  But though this be madness, yet there is method to it, because, somehow, collectively, McMurtry and Bogdanovich were able to pare the novel’s story down into a much leaner and ultimately more satisfying film version of The Last Picture Show.

Certainly, the leanness—and decreased meanness—of the screenplay is one reason, to me, that the film is ultimately more successful and satisfying than the novel. Gone is the novel’s omniscient narrator, a voice inconsistent, often satirical, and sometimes downright juvenile. With the narrator absent and much of the dialogue still intact, the film improves substantially, mainly because the film privileges showing over telling.

This is not to say that everything the narrator tells the reader is satirical or inessential. Certainly the first line of the novel resonates, especially to someone like me who, like McMurtry, grew up in rural Archer County and attended Archer City High School: “Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only living creature in the town” (1). The narrator quickly thereafter states that Sonny feels “strange and alone” because of “the look of the town” (1). So when adapting the novel to the screen, Bogdanovich and McMurtry had a decision to make: Ignore Sonny’s feelings or show the moviegoer Sonny’s isolation and loneliness visually? They chose the latter, reinforcing the starkness of the setting with black and white film.  And as much as McMurty’s first line resonates with me, I still prefer the opening scene of the film:  With the streets of Anarene (Thalia in the novel) deserted, Sonny tries to start his junky old pickup at the empty town square, while the background features nothing but blowing dust and rolling tumbleweeds.

Manipulating the mise-en-scene isn’t the only method Bogdanovich and McMurtry rely on to show rather than tell. The actors in the film were often expected to “show” the viewer the thoughts of their respective characters. In 1999, Ellen Burnstyn recalled her anxiety at portraying the complex emotions of Lois Farrow, specifically in the scene where Lois meets Jacy returning home after being seduced by Abilene. Burnstyn claims that she needed to demonstrate eight different emotions in the scene, without saying a word. When she expressed her concerns to Bogdanovich, he replied, “Think the thoughts of the character, and the camera will read it” (A Look Back). In the novel, the narrator tells the reader what Lois is thinking: “What Abilene had done hit hard, and her legs felt weak. . . . For a minute she felt like crying, but she felt too insignificant to cry, too valueless” (170). Conversely, the viewer of the film sees Burstyn show the complexity of Lois’s feelings, in a nuanced, sophisticated performance that is ultimately much more aesthetically satisfying. And of course, the credit for the film’s improvement lies, not only with the improved script, but with the actors as well, a point Bogdanovich is keenly aware of, saying, “Little gestures, sometimes, little movements, infinitesimal things that an actor or actress does makes you sort of see the character” (A Look Back). The brilliance of actors and actresses in the film was acknowledged by their peers. Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, as were Jeff Bridges (Sonny Crawford), Cloris Leachman (Ruth Popper), and Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion). Leachman and Johnson won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively.


One characteristic that both the film and novel emphasize is the characters’ sense of alienation, so much so that they call to mind T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  Certainly the physical environment of Archer City plays a role in this motif, and Larry McMurtry’s singer-songwriter son, James, underscores this idea as well, entitling his first album Too Long in the Wasteland. Furthermore, the cover of that album features James standing alongside an Archer County dirt road called Loftin Road, on which sits what is known as the old McMurtry homestead, the house Larry grew up in. James’ perception is not one from a dilettante. Larry says this about his son—without hyperbole: “James’ best songs are so good that I don’t think that my best novels really come up to them” (Du Lac). In particular, Larry admires James’ ability to say much with few words: “One element of music is poetry, and poetry is a lot harder than fiction. . . .  A lyric is the hardest form. You have to concentrate and squeeze those words. I respect James a lot for having found his own art and done it so well” (Du Lac). Ironically, the compressing of words that Larry admires in his son is quite similar to what Larry and Bogdanovich did with McMurtry’s novel: they edited it down to its essence, producing a much more aesthetically satisfying work.

Like Eliot’s poem, McMurtry’s novel features not just a physical setting of isolation, but a series of dysfunctional relationships as well. In fact, a close look at the couples in The Last Picture Show reveals that virtually every relationship is unhealthy, if not sickly. Ruth Popper’s football coach husband is cruel, distant, and a latent homosexual, to boot. Lois Farrow cuckolds her husband with a number of men around town, including, in the novel, Sonny. And living with a mom like Lois, Jacy doesn’t know what a healthy relationship is, as her actions and partners repeatedly reflect. Even Sonny and Duane’s buddy relationship disintegrates, leaving the boys so estranged that Duane avoids Sonny before leaving for the Korean War.

Nevertheless, like the carbuncular man of “The Waste Land,” at least a few characters in The Last Picture Show, despite their lack of success, aspire to closeness and satisfying relationships. This desire to connect that Sonny and others feel permeates both the novel and film, particularly in both media’s concentration on hands. In the novel, McMurtry’s repetition of the word “hands” in a number of scenes suggests their symbolic importance. During Sonny’s “parking” scene with Charlotte, McMurtry emphasizes Sonny’s hands. Not only does the narrator chronicle Sonny’s groping, but the dialogue also calls attention to Sonny’s hands. Charlotte says to Sonny at the first of the scene: “Ech, your hands are like ice” (18). The scene continues with Sonny dispassionately fondling Charlotte’s breast. When Sonny attempts to move his hand downward, apparently attempting to “celebrate”  the couple’s one year anniversary, Charlotte thwarts his progress, claiming, “What are you trying to do, Sonny, get me pregnant?”  Stunned, Sonny replies, “My lord. . . . It was just my hand” (18). With his hands, Sonny clearly is reaching, hoping to touch someone, both literally and figuratively. But as the scene reveals, closeness and connection is not what Sonny finds, not surprising considering that his hands are “cold.”  Instead of being closer and connected to Charlotte, his handsy-ness actually contributes to the couple’s breakup.

Later, after Sonny and Ruth return from her first trip to the doctor in Olney, McMurtry again emphasizes hands, fingers, and touching:

[Ruth] got up, came around the table, put out her hand, and traced her fingers almost to his mouth.  Her fingers were cool.  She put her hand on his head for minute, felt his hair against her palm and between her fingers, and then quickly reached down for one of his hands and pressed it against her cheek and throat.  She held his hand there for a moment and then laid it back on the table as carefully as if it were a piece of china. (44)

Ruth Popper’s marriage has produced nothing but frustration and alienation for Ruth. So presented with the opportunity to touch a young man, she seizes it, despite the immoral implications. In fact, Ruth’s loneliness has been so acute that she risks divorce and ridicule in order to touch someone and be touched. Alienation and isolation are too painful for her, so she searches for connection with Sonny. This physical, as well as burgeoning emotional connection, is symbolized by the hands of the characters.

Now interestingly, this scene in the film differs substantially from the novel. In the film, Ruth and Sonny do not touch.  The reason they don’t is clear. Without question, the most intimate moment in the film occurs at the conclusion when, after Billy’s death, the camera, in the longest of any close-up shots, lingers on Sonny and Ruth holding hands. Despite the film and novel’s emphasis, some would say obsession, on sex, no sex scene even vaguely approaches the poignancy of Ruth and Sonny’s holding hands. Most of the physical scenes with Ruth and Sonny feature kissing and/or intercourse, but ironically, the squeaking bed and anxieties of the couple during sex only reinforce their emotional distance. Yet when they simply hold hands, their closeness is never more apparent.


Conversely, Jacy Farrow engages in a series of dysfunctional and ego-centric relationships. She is not concerned with love or intimacy, but with the excitement her scandalous behavior can generate among her peers and townsfolk. But Jacy eventually meets her self-absorbed match in her father’s roughneck employee Abilene, a man who also engages in an affair with Jacy’s mother, Lois. When Abilene seduces Jacy in the pool hall, both characters are motivated to have sex, but neither character is really interested in the feelings or emotions of the other.  In the novel, during the sex on the pool table, the narrator says, “[Jacy] was still ignored. [Abilene] was just going on, absorbed in himself, moving, nudging, thrusting—she was no more than an object” (169). And later, post coital, the narrator adds, “[H]e kept ignoring her. He didn’t even help her find her clothes” (169). Even by Jacy’s selfish standards, Abilene’s behavior is distant and self-centered, so much so that Abilene’s attitude differs little from the bestial behavior of the high school boys during the scene in which they copulate with a blind heifer. While Jacy clearly isn’t as helpless as the heifer, Abilene’s refusal even to accept Jacy’s goodnight kiss suggests that his contempt for her feelings is every bit as calloused and cruel as the boys’ feelings toward the young cow.

Again, the challenge for Bogdanovich and McMurtry in writing the screenplay would be how to convey the narrator’s ideas via film or dialogue.  Interestingly, the actual pool table seduction scene was not included in the original film. In 1999, it was added to the DVD version in the “Definitive Director’s Cut.” Further complicating the situation was the fact that the original sound to the scene was lost. Consequently, the scene contains no significant sound and absolutely no dialogue.  So particularly in this scene, the camera and its framing are paramount in conveying the story to the movie’s audience. Especially noteworthy are the close-ups on hands in this scene. The scene’s close-ups on Abilene’s hands show them moving in a methodical, utilitarian way. He moves the blanket and the pool balls. Then he essentially moves Jacy into position.  He never caresses her, and at times his hands are nearly forceful, especially when parting Jacy’s legs.

Jacy’s hands are no more intimate than Abilene’s. While maybe erotic, suggestive of passion, Jacy’s hands do not underscore sensitivity or connectedness. In fact, she does not even caress or touch Abilene during the short scene.  Instead, Jacy, arms spread wide, grasps the leather corner pockets of the pool table. During actual intercourse, Jacy opts to use her hands to physically connect with an inanimate object rather than her sexual partner. Clearly both Jacy and Abilene are having sex, but only incidentally with each other. What Bogdanovich wordlessly captures in this scene is a motif that Donald Fritz notes in McMurtry’s novel: “Of the numerous sexual relationships in the book, not one is a mutually rewarding experience; sex is a matter of giving and taking, never sharing. There may be a degree of satisfaction for the giver and the taker, but satisfaction is experienced in isolation” (189). Certainly, the film eloquently captures this pervasive isolation, without the narrator’s intrusive commentary, and, as in this scene, with visual images only.

A few other scenes in the film focus exclusively on hands, all occurring toward the last quarter of the movie. In one of these, Jacy decides to disrupt Sonny’s relationship with Ruth Popper, not because she is attracted to or interested in Sonny, but just because she can. Bogdanovich highlights this selfish manipulation with a close-up shot of Jacy reaching and touching Sonny’s hand as he rests it on her car door. At first, Sonny resists Jacy’s invitation to “drive around a while” because he is supposed to tryst with Ruth Popper. But when Jacy squeezes his hand, an action accentuated by a close-up, Sonny gets into her car, a victim of Jacy’s cold, calculating cruelty. But these close-up shots don’t really reveal anything new about Jacy. Instead, what Bogdavonich does is foreshadow Sonny’s last scene with Ruth. As soon as Sonny slides into Jacy’s front seat, only seconds after the close-up on his and Jacy’s hands, the scene quickly shifts to a contrasting close-up on Ruth Popper’s hands, as she smooths the new wallpaper in her bedroom. Sonny has opted for the feigned and false connection with Jacy, while a woman who really cares about him is left alone after sprucing up both herself and bedroom in preparation for Sonny’s visit.

These wordless connections and contrasts that Bogdanovich constructs are particularly effective in showing the audience the story, a characteristic that A.O. Scott notes in his praise of the film: “Now if McMurtry’s writing is what grounds the movie in reality, it’s Bogdanovich’s direction that infuses it with lyricism. Bogdanovich tells the story efficiently. But more importantly, he’s always aware of and knows how to take advantage of the emotional power of the cinematic image.” And certainly the most powerful cinematic image in the film occurs at its aforementioned conclusion. At this point, Sonny’s alienation is at its apex. Sam the Lion’s dead. Jacy has left town for Dallas. Duane’s gone to Korea. And Billy, the mentally challenged symbol of innocence in film, has just been run over by a cattle truck. Sonny drives to Ruth’s house, although he has not visited in three months. Unsurprisingly, Ruth is furious, lashing out at Sonny, as he silently submits to her tirade. But then Sonny plaintively reaches across the table for Ruth’s hand, emphasized of course, with a close-up shot of the characters’ hands. What follows is nearly two minutes of silence in which Bogdanovich alternates between the characters’ faces and close-up shots of their hands caressing one another. What makes the scene poignant is the complexity of emotions that their silence and actions imply. If I were to attempt to describe the characters’ convoluted feelings, I couldn’t.  And that’s the point; that’s why the film is much more successful than the novel.  Instead of a narrator attempting to transcribe Ruth’s and Sonny’s thoughts, Bogdanovich lets the camera reveal the scene’s pathos.

This is not to say that the scene’s broader implications are not, at least to careful viewers, apparent. In the scene prior to Ruth and Sonny’s ostensible reconciliation, Bogdanovich again reminds the audience of film’s wasteland-like setting.  Echoing the first scene in the movie, Billy’s death occurs in the midst of an audible wind and blowing dust, providing the only sounds in the lengthy shot in which Sonny drags his dead friend to the steps of the theater. When Sonny drives to Ruth’s house in the following scene, Sonny’s utter alienation is fresh on viewers’ minds. As Sonny has previously demonstrated, he is not simply looking for sex, but more significantly he is looking to connect with another human being.  Unfortunately for most, the novel is so replete with sex scenes and graphic narrative descriptions that readers “miss” the tinge of hopefulness that Ruth and Sonny’s rapprochement implies: Maybe, just maybe, despite the obstacles and oppressive environment, these two characters can connect, if not with each other, then at least at some point with another similar sensitive soul. Instead, many readers, according to McMurtry himself, remember only the sex. Writing in his brilliant collection of essays, In a Narrow Grave, McMurtry says, “By far the commonest local response to my three novels [the Thalia trilogy, which includes The Last Picture Show] has been: ‘Well, I like the story but I wish you’d left out that other crap,’ the other crap being presumably the sexual description” (62). Well, that “other crap,” at least a significant part of it, is exactly what is missing in the film.  And the film is better for it.  While McMurtry clearly resists and rejects the local gentry’s prudishness and dilettantish literary criticism, ironically, the film’s lack of narrative sexual description, coupled with Bogdanovich’s emphasis on key images, actually does facilitate the “telling” of the story, resulting in a film that continues to impress and enthrall contemporary viewers from around the world.


GregGiddingsGreg Giddings grew up in rural Archer County and attended Archer City schools.  He graduated from Midwestern State University with a BBA in Accounting (of all things) in 1985.  He followed his undergrad education with several years of basketball abroad, with stops in Sweden, Israel, and Australia.  Upon returning stateside, Giddings earned an MA in English at Midwestern and began his teaching career at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX. Eventually, Giddings returned to MSU, as both English instructor and basketball coach. After seven years, Giddings retired from coaching and returned to teaching full time, eventually completing a Ph.D. in Humanities from the University of Texas-Dallas.  He now serves as Assistant Professor in the English Department at Midwestern State.



 Works Cited

Crawford, Iain. “Intertexuality in Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.” Journal of Popular Culture 27.1 (1993): 43-54. Print.

Du Lac, J. Freedom. “His Songs? Bleak. His Future? Bright.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 1 June 2008. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.

Fritz, Donald. E. “Anatomy and The Last Picture Show: A Matter of Definition.” Taking Stock: A Larry McMurtry Casebook. Ed. Clay Reynolds. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1989. 186-92. Print.

Jones, Roger Walton. Larry McMurtry and the Victorian Novel. College Station: Texas A&M P, 1994. Print.

The Last Picture Show. Screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich. Dir. Peter Bogdanovich. 1971, Columbia Pictures, 1999. Film.

The Last Picture Show: A Look Back. Written by Laurent Bouzereau. Dir. Laurent Bouzereau. 1999. Columbia Pictures, 1999.Film.

Lich, Lera Patrick Tyler. Larry McMurtry’s Texas: Evolution of Myth. Austin, Eakin, 1987. Print.

McMurtry, Larry. Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood. New York: Simon, 1987. Print.

—. In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas. Austin: Encino, 1968.

—. The Last Picture Show. New York: Dial, 1966. Print.

Scott, A.O. “Critics’ Picks: The Last Picture Show.” Youtube. Youtube, 26 Apr. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2013

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Notes from the Auction Ring Sat, 16 Nov 2013 01:59:40 +0000 Dyp1_2July 24, 2013

A group of Archer City writers embarked on an eye-opening adventure: to check out a nearby cattle auction barn.  They came home with stories of the day that sent them traveling back in time, to memories of their own lives dealing with livestock.  




By Lori Dann

She must be scared. Terrified, actually. Why is she here, standing in front of these strangers in cowboy hats? Where is her grass, her wide-open spaces?

She must long for the monotony of her everyday life. The silence and comfort of her massive pasture. It’s loud here. Too loud.

Read More on Blackie>


AuctionDyp8_1On the Farm

by Harry Hall

“Did you ever look at a cow or a pig? They’re ugly. We’re doing them a favor by eating them. It saves them from having to look at each other. But a horse is a noble beast.”

This paraphrased quote from Col. Potter of M*A*S*H came to mind when I heard Lori Dann speak of how the cows’ day was disrupted and ultimately ended.

Read More On The Farm>


AuctionDyp2_1Cowboy Down

by Eric Nishimoto

I hate cattle auctions.

The last time I attended one was when I had to liquidate our thoroughbred longhorns. They were just several head, not enough to call a herd. I call them “a handful” because they were.  We bought them in 2005, right before we moved to Texas from California.

Some wealthy ranchers persuaded me that longhorns were a fabulous investment.

Read More Cowboy Down>



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