Lone Star Love
Late one Saturday afternoon last October, I found myself standing in a Gonzales, Texas, rodeo arena talking politics with a man named Cary, the membership director of a group called the Texas Nationalist Movement. Cary’s focus was on secession – or independence, as he preferred to call it. Having spent the past hour helping lead a rally calling for just that goal, he had now turned to me, the skeptic with a notepad, and launched into the hard facts of why Texas’ freedom from the motherland might be at hand. Quite suddenly, however, and perhaps prompted on by my earnest nodding, he had veered into even deeper waters: shadow governments, World Bank conspiracies, a looming food shortage; basically he had strangely implied with a smile, the end of the world as we know it. Although I suspected Cary batshit crazy, I was, in fact, fascinated by what I heard. More than any theory, it was his confidence, his total faith, his unapologetic conviction that had me so hooked: “There is still time. You can still see the light,” he seemed to be saying. When it finally did come time to part ways, he shook my hand, slapped me on the shoulder, and said “good luck to ya,” before slipping back into his crowd of fellow Texas nationalists. I turned and headed to the car, finding my girlfriend Duvall already in the passenger seat, ready to head for home. I gave her a grin, said “you got to hear this,” then pulled onto the northbound highway. The last sight in my rearview mirror was a flag, whipping back and forth in the hot breeze with its cannon and single star and message – near holy to proud Texas natives – to “Come And Take It.”
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That I had found myself a resident of the Lone Star State, much less attending a rally for its secession, was never part of the plan. Like many of the strange, unexpected turns we take, it all started with the pursuit of another – in my case, Duvall. We had met the year prior in Mississippi. She was finishing graduate school and I, after an extended Colorado hiatus, had returned to my home state to take a newspaper job. Then, two months into our seeing each other she got the call. A job offer in Austin. A good job. Would I follow? In truth, I offered little resistance. Texas had long intrigued me. Admittedly influenced by old westerns and visions of honky-tonks and especially by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I associated the place with adventure and possibility and free-spirited souls. Only in Texas could the likes of Janis Joplin and Townes Van Zandt and Bonnie and Clyde emerge. Only in Texas could a man still own a ranch the size of Rhode Island or spend a Sunday afternoon playing chickenshit bingo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.
But along with these romantic notions, I also had real concerns. Mainly, I wasn’t a “native.” Nor did I want to be. As a proud Mississippian, I did harbor a bit of a grudge against Texans – their undeserved swagger; their “bigger and better” clichés and shameless self-love. I may go, I told myself, but no way will I buy into it. What I realized upon my arrival was that even I had underestimated the state of things. The first sign came after I accepted a reporting job with a small paper near Austin and was sent to cover a public school board meeting. There, I stood slack-jawed as the board opened with a prayer worthy of Jerry Falwell, then proceeded to offer a pledge of allegiance – to the Texas flag. “Honor the Texas flag,” said every stern face in the room, their hands over their hearts. “I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.” I kept my hands at my side, wondering if this was for real. Afterwards I started noticing “Yes We Can Secede” and “Secede Now” bumper stickers all over the highways. I also read about a secession-tinged comment from Texas Gov. Rick Perry that had recently turned the heads of pundits nationwide.
“We’ve got a great union,” the governor had declared during an April 15 Tea Party rally at Austin City Hall. “There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come of that.”
In Perry’s wake, Texas Congressman Ron Paul had also chimed in, calling the right to break away from the union a “very legitimate issue to debate” and dutifully reminding the country that Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance, happened to be a socialist.
As I struggled to get my head around what appeared to be mainstream secession sympathies, a press release landed in my email inbox one morning from a group called the Texas Nationalist Movement. The coming spring they would hold a convention in San Antonio, the release said. Thousands would be there making the case for secession. I had never heard of the TNM but immediately googled them, discovering a well-designed web page full of articles, podcast messages, and YouTube videos discussing why Texas must stand alone. One of the videos showed an interview between Glenn Beck and Daniel Miller, the TNM president. Beck was hammering away for parallels with the Tea Party, but Miller wasn’t having it, insisting his only concern was returning Texas to its rightful place as a republic. Funny stuff, I thought. Then I learned more, most notably that Miller descended from the Republic of Texas, an ultra right-wing secession movement that in 1997, under the direction of one Rick McLaren, engaged in a week-long hostage standoff with Texas Rangers in the West Texas, Davis Mountains. Things had ended badly, with one of the members dying in a gunfight and McLaren being sentenced to life in prison. Miller had escaped such a fate though. Before the debacle, he had organized his own followers and split from McLaren’s more violent faction. A series of power struggles took place within the surviving Republic of Texas, but Miller’s faction prevailed and by the late 2000s, was known as the TNM.
I decided this was interesting stuff, possibly the seed of a magazine article, and made my plans to attend the conference. By the time March rolled around, however, the conference had been cancelled. In its place a rally would be held in Gonzales, a little town on the Guadalupe River known as the Birthplace of Texas Freedom. Furthermore, it would coincide with Gonzales’s annual Come and Take It Festival. This event, I learned to my delight, would take place on October 2 and mark the 175th anniversary of the Texas Revolution’s opening battle. Prior to Texas winning its independence for a decade, prior to the Alamo and Goliad, it had been at the Battle of Gonzales where Texas settlers fired the first shot against Mexico. I marked my calendar and made plans to attend. When Duvall found out, she was game too. I warned her things might get strange, but she didn’t seem concerned. “It will be fun,” she said. “You should wear your Wranglers and cowboy boots though.”
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