Growing up in West Texas marks you forever.
Mountain ranges give me the creeps. Rain was such a stranger that I still can barely manage to open and close an umbrella without a nervous breakdown. Even after all these years, my idea of pure freedom remains driving fast along a flat, straight road, drinking beer and playing country music so loud my eardrums almost burst.
Around Midland, where I went to high school, the land is hard, unforgiving, and flat. My father worked in the oil business, so we moved from town to town in West Texas, always buying new houses on the edge of town, always planting a spindly tree in the front yard. We had to stake the new trees so they wouldn’t bend in the fierce winds that blew almost every day.
When we moved to Midland in 1965, the city had a gritty energy and drive I hadn’t seen in the other sleepy towns. Dust might have been in the air, but so was money. I heard stories about dentists quitting their jobs and making fortunes from oil strikes, surveyors who claimed narrow plots of overlooked land that yielded millions of dollars in mineral rights, Midlanders who had bowling alleys in their basements and flew to Dallas to shop.
When your father works as an accountant for an oil company, as mine did, you don’t have any dramatic stories of sudden wealth to tell. You learn to watch and listen.
In a city of doers, hustlers, gamblers, optimists, and oil visionaries, introspection is for sissies with too much time on their hands. Midland is a great place to watch and listen as long as you don’t mind feeling lonely now and then.
The Midland I knew growing up is different from the one George W. Bush talks about. He recalls small-town values of neighborliness, a safe place where kids could ride their bicycles all over town, and families gathered for impromptu picnics and barbecues. The Midland I recall was richer and edgier, and not nearly as wholesome, fueled by alcohol and boredom and empty horizons-more Larry McMurtry than Reader’s Digest.
“They always said George W. used to be wild,” a 70-year-old veteran of Midland’s faster lanes once told me. She was dressed in a short skirt and cowboy boots, with a carefully painted face and stiff, well-coifed hair that could have withstood the fiercest norther. She sniffed loudly. “Well,” she said, “he wasn’t really wild. Not by Midland standards.”
Visiting Bush’s childhood home in Midland now, there is nothing to suggest that anything wild by Midland’s-or any other city’s-standards happened when the Bush family lived there from 1951 to 1955. At 1412 West Ohio Ave., it’s the idyllic memories of a child that are preserved and recreated.
Now owned by the nonprofit George W. Bush Childhood Home Inc., the house was originally acquired by the Permian Basin Board of Realtors. According to the nonprofit’s Web site, the group has raised more than $1 million for restoration of the property, including a $2,500 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and $4,000 from the Texas Historical Commission.
In the restless, get-rich-tomorrow Permian Basin economy, the Bush family actually lived in three houses in nearby Odessa from 1948 to 1949, and in three Midland houses between 1950 and 1958. Two of the Odessa houses were razed. The third, which had been restored and moved onto land leased from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, was recently damaged by fire. Officials suspect the blaze was arson.
Claiming the Bushes is all part of the continuing competition between Midland and Odessa, prairie cities that sit 20 miles apart, reveling in their differences. Midland is richer; Odessa is blue collar. Odessa is tougher, a better place to drink; Midland has more country clubs. The airport bears Midland’s name, but Odessa landed UTPB.
If you’re from Midland or Odessa and outsiders say they always get the cities confused, you feel deeply insulted. Can’t people see the profound differences? Nobody else cares, but in the Permian Basin, confusing Midland and Odessa are fighting words-or evidence that you may be in serious need of a seeing-eye dog or a working brain.
You can forget about Odessa when you’re in Midland. “I tell people this is the only house in America that was the home of two presidents, two governors, and one First Lady,” said Martha Kallus, a volunteer docent at the Midland house.
Since it opened to the public in April 2006, the house has attracted thousands of visitors from 33 countries and 48 states (Alaska and New Hampshire are the holdouts). Among the visitors was a reporter from The New York Times who found it odd the house was so small, just 1,500 square feet.
“I told him that was the way people lived then,” Kallus said. “It was a mansion to Mrs. Bush.”
The plain frame house, built in 1939, has been restored to a painstaking recreation of a 1950s-era family home. The paneling in the living room is knotty pine, and windows with Venetian blinds shade the sun. There are hardwood floors, an old television with a small screen that resembles the one Barbara Bush’s father gave the family one Christmas, and an enclosed porch with a stick horse and a chalk board.
The kitchen boasts a speckled linoleum floor and a dazzling 1950s turquoise refrigerator that still works. In a bedroom, a neatly folded Cub Scout uniform lies on a twin bed. “George W. Bush was this country’s first president to have been a Cub Scout,” Kallus said.
Another bedroom is dedicated to the family’s baseball affiliations. You can see a photograph of George H.W. Bush as a lanky Yalie standing next to Babe Ruth, and George W.’s Little League roster. “He was also the first president who was in the Little League,” Kallus said.
It’s an impressive job, this careful, airbrushed paean to a simpler time, to an innocent and warmhearted city of good neighbors and backyard barbecues, to a hardworking, unassuming family. “It seems improbable now, but in that little house on Ohio Street right down the road from here, it was hard to envision then the future … of two presidents and a governor of Florida,” George W. told The Dallas Morning News in 2001.
Not quite so improbable when you consider the family’s hefty ties to the Eastern financial and political establishments-but why quibble? It makes a better story that way, when fate singles out a young family for political destiny-even if it’s not much less probable, given the circumstances, than a dust storm slamming into Midland every spring.
It makes a better story, cleaner and simpler. But it made me wonder about other, untold stories and explanations. How had Midland and West Texas marked George W. Bush in ways that didn’t fit the Norman Rockwell renderings of Little League and community cookouts? Had this hard country, with so little time or patience for self-reflection, contributed to a man who has famously never admitted mistakes or learned from them? Wasn’t there something more, something that could explain him better?
“We’ve had a few surprises here, I guess,” said Christopher Havins, the home’s executive director. He sat in a nearby office, surrounded by envelopes and letters. Photographs lined the walls and a small, red sled was propped against one wall. “We had this one lovely lady who came through and cried during the entire visit. Because it was so significant, you know.”
Wait a minute. A small, red sled? Could it be?
“The rest-well, they’re just varied visitors,” Havins said. “People from the Philippines and Russia, China, Africa, the Middle East. A lot of it is touching. People came here from Kuwait-and they were so grateful.
“Any Iraqis?” he paused to think. “No. No Iraqis. People from Kuwait, Oman, and Dubai. But no Iraqis.”
But the sled! The red sled (whose name, I noticed, was Royal Racer). What about it? To whom did it belong? Did it have any meaning?
“It was probably something the historian picked up,” said Kallus, looking surprised at the sudden interest. “Or maybe something the family brought with them from New England. It was probably based on photographs we have.”
Havins said, “I don’t know. The family might have used it-or something like it.”
He gazed out the window at a bright December day.
“It used to snow here, you know,” Havins said. “It used to snow a lot more in West Texas.”
Ruth Pennebaker is an Austin writer, young-adult author and KUT commentator. She blogs at geezersisters.wordpress.com