TOM LEA OF EL PASO Life and Times of a Texas Writer Painter down my face. I never have been so really shaken.” The Hornet had been struck only 36 hours after he left it. It had sunk only 24 hours before Nimitz told him the news. Lea’s station on the Hornet had been the signal bridge. It had been hit by a kamakazi. Out of 22 friends there, five had survived. With direct clearance from Nimitz, he returned to the States, to El Paso, to complete his paintings on the South Pacific. It was in New York, in the winter of 1942, that he began writing, and then it was in the form of extended captions for Life on his South Pacific work. For the next several months, Lea traveled all over the world with the Air Transport Command. “No one,” he says, “had a free hitch-hiker’s pass around the world the way I did in 1943.” He went to Iceland, Labrador, Greenland, England, ‘Africa, the Middle East, China. He flew the Hump, and he made the first B-25 flight to Chungking. All the while he was sketching, painting. His work in ’43 and early ’44 was probably his mcst productive of the war: “Arrival in IcelandMidnight,” “Baffinland, Frobisher Bay and Northern Lights,” “The DockGoose Bay,” and in his China series, “Chungking,” “November Plow:ng,” “The Walking War,” “Grandfather China,” and a pair of superb portraits of Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang. “Chiang was a difficult subject,” he remembers. “He set an alarm clock next to him and warned me he could only spare 30 minutes. When 30 minutes came and the alarm rang I was barely started. He gave me another 20 minutes, and that was it.” Chiang’s portrait, tucked away now in a corner of Lea’s house, is the visage of an intense and ruthless man. Madame Chiang was more gracious, and her portrait shows it. ‘Almost Enough’ The next year, 1944, Lea was again in the Pacific, and this time he was with the first Marines to land on Peleliu Island. “That experience,” he said, “had as much to do with my attitude on life as anything. There aren’t any combat pictures like these because no one lived.” In his journal of the Peliliu landing he pointed to a photograph of himself, in full gear, taken just before going into the battle. “There’s something sort of tentative in that,” he said, “like a little boy. “That experience was really almost enough. By this time I was beginning to have dreamsbad ones.” He was on the beach 32 hours, sketching furiously, sometimes “with Japs all around.” Then he went back to his ship and started to work. One of his paintings of a Marine stricken near him, reproduced in Life, almost defies description. The caption explains it: “Mangled shreds of what was once an arm hung straight down as he bent over in his stumbling, half-crazy walk. Half his face was bashed pulp. The other half bore a horrifying expression of abject patience. Grotesquely his bloodsoaked uniform was coated with coral grit. Marines who were about to plunge into battle stared, cursed, saw him collapse in a red puddle on the sand. He scrambled up from the ground as if embarrassed at falling.” Later, on the back of this painting, Lea scribbled in Spanish the same phrase Goya wrote on one of his execution sketches: “Yo Lo Vi.” Back in the States again finishing his Peliliu work, he was in the process of painting the sand on the beach. His wife asked, “Was that really the color of the sand?” Unpacking a duffle-bag shortly after that, some of the Peliliu sand came out. “I put it next to the canvas, and it was right.” The Life display on the landing, in all its horrible details, caused something of a disturbance. “I got letters from all sorts of people,” Lea said. “One said, ‘I am a Gold Star Mother. Goddam you and your painting.’ ” ‘The Brave Bulls’ When the war was over, Lea says he was “burnt out as a painter for a while. I suppose I was burnt out in every other way. Writing was a new adventure.” Life assigned him to do a series of paintings to show stages in the development of the beef cattle industry in America. During these researches, on a Mexican trip seeking types which resembled the first Spanish cattle in North America, he became fascinated by yet another type, the Spanish fighting bull. He did some watercolors, along with a lengthy text, on the Toro de Lidia, but Life rejected him. Soon after that, he returned to Mexico to work on his first novel. The Brave Bulls, published in 1949, was a bestseller. Crisp and well-written \(and probably the genuine spiritual meaning to the Latin fiesta, explored the ritual of the bullfightso alien to most Anglosand made it come alive. His other books have included two novels, The Wonderful Country, published in 1952, and The Primal Yoke, published in 1960. He spent five years on contract with the King Ranch, and in 1957 his two-volume history, The King Ranch, was published. He has illustrated, just this year, two books : Forty Years at El Paso by W. W. Mills and a volume by Marshall Hail on Harper Lee, a native of Ysleta, Texas, who became a bullfighter, “a man,” Lea says, “who truly bridged the gap between Anglo and Latin.” LittleBrown will publish it later this year. Lea is a serious and disciplined artist. When he writes, he writes slowly, painstakingly, rewriting again and again. He regularly works a nine-hour day in the studio in his backyard, and next to his painting easel is his typewriter. “I suppose I’m an old-fashioned type,” he says. “I think there are only two kinds of paintinggood and bad. The style isn’t nearly so important as the artist coming through.” Much of art criticism, he feels, has itself become stylized; there is too much stress on styles and periods, often arbitrarily selected. “There are certain languages” in painting. “When you start to use your own brand of Hottentot you’re beginning to get obscure. “The only thing you really need to know is to get yourself a paint AUSTIN Footnotes on the language of desegregation: The very word, “integration,” , makes some people angry, including, for example, one East Texas liberal who supports “desegregation.” “The Supreme Court did not order integration. It ordered desegregation,” she scolds. \(Of “Colored” is another euphemism in the race-sensitive South. It is grounded, not in a legal distinction, but in the awkward necessities of social discourse in a caste society undergoing rapid change. Negroes who want to be called Negroes might subject themselves to white hostility by using such a branded word; “colored” is neutral and at least isn’t “nigger.” Whites who do not like to say “nigger” or any of its softened variants can choose between “colored” and “Negro,” and of course many choose “colored” for as many reasons as there are situations. Segregationists have a problem dealing with outsiders they do not want to antagonize. District Judge Otis Dunagan of Tyler, the trial judge in the state’s court case against the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, discussed the case with an Observer reporter and a Time Magazine man in his chambers. He started out saying “Negro.” This gradually became “nigrah.” By the time he had relaxed and decided the redorters weren’t such bad fellows, he was assuring them he didn’t have anything against “the nigger people.” Drop in on parties in West Austin \(if you haven’t anything better the sophisticated whites talking about “the jigs.” This is short for jigaboos. Some of the East Texas politicians talk about “coons” \(there is also a variant compound that refers to Negroes in East Texas, but evidently also to the Cajuns up in Northeast Texas remembers, boxand who’s to gainsay you? “I think my own experience has been a rich one. Up through the war I was solely a painter. I remember the first time I sat down, during the war, to write something seriously. The first time I put quotes around something someone said, I told myself, it’s like owning a new paintbox, it’s another form of communication.” He pointed to a half-finished painting on his big easel, two girls standing in front of an old cafe. “When you’re painting that,” he said, “you’re ‘trying to show what the girls see when they’re looking at that cafe. But when you try to tell what happens to the girls when they meet those birds in that cafe, that’s not painting. A from his youth, that his pals used to get up parties and go “coonconking.” This game was not surprising coons with flashlights and conking them with sticks, but chasing Negroes in their section and conking them with baseball bats. So he said. The only segregationist he has been able to convert used to call Negroes “velvetheads,” just why he couldn’t say. There are a lot of jokes, of course. They relieve tension, and some of them seem to ‘be guiltrelieving, too. Do you know what they call a colored Nobel Prizewinning physicist from Mississippi? “Nigger,” of course. Have you met the Mississipin who it writing a book about Ralph Bunche, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes? He’s calling it “Niggers I’ve Known.” A few tales like these have extensive currency; almost everyone’s heard them. They seem to satisfy either the desire to deride, or to expiate the cruelties of the Southern situation. The Freedom Riders, the schoolgirls braving mobs, the sit-inners bearing the cursings and cuffings with dignity, have placed the white Southern tradition at an insupportable disadvantage. Surely the segregationists’ unspoken awareness that the Negroes are the heroes of this time in national historythat insofar as ‘people believe in saints, they are the saintshelps account for the fact that every time you get started on these jokes, somebody tells the one about the guy who died, went to heaven, saw God, managed to make it back to earth, and said, when asked what God was like “She’s black.” The idealization works two ways. Negroes’ contempt for white liberals can run pretty strong. Michael Harrington alluded to Baldwin’s turn toward “Negro nationalism” because of his disgust with white liberals. The hard-core integrationist workers in the South have an in-group lingo, of course. painter and a writer should tell something.” What is it in the subject matter of El Paso and its country that appeals to him as an artist? “It’s the character of the place. I can -remember so well coming home as a student in Chicago’ to El Paso on the old Golden State Limited. I’d suddenly wake up and I began to smell. It was dry. My whole body came alive. “I like the austerity of this country, the bareness of form. This is an old hard-rock carcass of an earth out here. Whatever is green out here is a precious thing. All vegetation is valuable. The trees don’t seemed holed in a prison. “The desert is a friendly place to me.” He felt “happily at home” in “the hills of Umbria and Tuscany” when he was studying art ‘abroad. He saw there “the same hard lines, the same austere forms. “One of the most frightened I’ve ever been was looking at a landscape of a rain forest in upper Assam. You can cut down a tree there and next week it’s 50 feet high. “I’ve always been profoundly moved by the sea. The sea is a beautiful desertthe austerity, the raw elements at work. “I think an artist has to carry his part of the load in society, but he also has to be pretty selfish to devote himself to the important thinghis art. Time is the most vital thing in any creative work, and there’s never enough of it. “But the place where you feel the most comfortable is where you’ll do your best work. Mankind lives ‘and sees and feels everywhere.” W.M. The Students’ Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is “Snick,” the N.A.A.C.P. is “the N Double A” and then there are the variants on “sit-in”stand-in, wade-in, kneel -in, read -in, mammy -in \(a mother going into a church to a slum-dweller sitting out in the street during the In a marginal area like Kenedy, Texas, where fewer people think about equal right’s, the stories have a more relaxed implication. For instance, Dan Strawn says, two integrated high school football teams were playing a game when a riot broke out on the field. The coaches dashed out ‘to break it up; one of the team captains shouted at the enemy coach, “Your nigger hit our colored boy!” Strawn says Negroes call each other niggers around Kenedy \(nothing new in the South, of were loading Johnson grass onto a truck, and another Kenedy man, a white, was referring to them, in conversation with Strawn, as Negroes. Amused, they started referring to each other as Negroes. “Negro, help me with this here, will you?” Later in the week one of them was indicted for murder. From South Texas, too, you hear the tale \(bowdlerized in this tellMexico for a holiday where he can be treated as an equal. He makes up to this Mexican girl in a bar, and the girl’s husband comes at him with a knife, so he makes like a Mexican. The Mexicanknife against the Negro’s Adam’s apple tells him to prove he’s a Mexican, so he says, “Adios, you mother,” and takes off. P. D. East says it seems to him that the race jokes have died away entirely in his part of the South the last two or three months. Perhaps the white Southerners are realizing at last that their battle is lost. Or perhaps, defeated, they are losing their sense of humor. R.D. THE TEXAS OBSERVER Page 6 Jan. 13, 1962 FOOTNOTES ON THE IDIOM
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