Our namesake lies due west of Corpus Christi, past flat miles of sorghum, wheat and cotton fields, and towns with shops smelling of blood that, for pennies per pounds, will butcher the deer you shot and mount its head. Farther west the fields disappear, towns become fewer, the land becomes inexhaustible in breadth and texture. "If it's got thorns on it, then we got it in South Texas," is what they say down here, a half-boast meaning that they're tough enough to ride harsh scrub, or at least their ancestors were.
Their boast runs deeper than it seems. This land is not inhuman. When Mexicans first settled this place, they found what they called "a sea of grass." Hundreds of square miles of deep, rustling grass. but settlers' cattle and sheep eventually gnawed grass down to bare stubble. Once these bald spots appeared on the lush and seemingly endless green mat, there was no turning back.
Horticulturists now believe that the grass was a "botanical artifact," a holdover from an older, wetter age. By the time settlers arrived, the grass's hold on the land was already tenuous; it couldn't survive barbed wire and overgrazing. Farmers cleared land for crops, cattlemen and shepherds let their stock grow fat. The bald spots remained baled. But birds, in their droppings, brought in seeds of aggressive, prickly desert plants that thrived in the hot, and arid climate. The sea of grass became a sea of thorns. This is how the boast runs deeper. The land's harshness, its ability to scratch, snag, cut deep, harm, was not indigenous. The land was made cruel by men.
"Doctored land" is what old men call it, meaning land altered by human will. "My grandaddy told me that when he'd ride from Corpus to Laredo, there'd be hardly a bush or a tree. He'd have to take a wood peg with him so he could tie up his horse." This grass-to-thorns transformation, however, was so long ago that it's difficult to imagine what picture it is these old men hold in their minds when they think of a past that could only have been told to them.
Once the fields play out on the road from Corpus to San Diego, it's miles of mesquite, cactus, huisache, and sugarberry. There's also a variety of chile that grows among the scrub, chile picayune, that the wild turkeys down here love to eat and that, some hunters say, turns the bird's' flesh so spicy it's impossible to eat.
This spicy, thorny land in which San Diego, seat of Duval County, sits is part of a broader ecological region, the Tamaulipan biotic province that stretches from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas to San Antonio, Texas. It's a transitional zone between tropics and desert. And the region's equivocal nature becomes humanly apparent between Corpus and San Diego. Each small town along the way, on a big roadside sign, announces the name of its high school football team. East to west these team names are Anglo, until you reach San Diego, whose sign offers, "Home of the Vaqueros."
The Home of the Vaqueros is what's known as a two-stoplight town. If you drove fast enough down Texas Highway 44, if the lights were green, you'd miss it. You'd miss the red brick county courthouse, the Spanish-style main square, the church, the squat white building that houses the city government's offices. You'd even miss the Duval County Museum. You'd miss all of it because the center of town lies a few blocks south of the highway. San Diego is like that. Most of its larger-than-life history took place just out of reach of the comings and goings of the larger world, of American and Mexican history. It is a transitional place, neither Mexican nor American, where aggression and tenacity could pay off in spectacular ways.
But what's first and most important to remember about San Diego, other than its scrub, is its sky. It is a big, Luminous sky that seems to shimmer. Nobody knows why. Perhaps it's the moisture from the nearby gulf that causes it. Perhaps it's the latitude. If you walk around the county courthouse on a late afternoon, the simple red brick courthouse, where pivotal scenes from the city's history were enacted, you'd quickly discover that at that latitude, 27"36'8" north, there's not much twilight. In San Diego, Texas, night falls quickly.
San Diego's sky serves as an appropriate backdrop for imaginings of Duval County's history. The sky is so vast and the landscape so flat that against them, the upright form of a rider on horseback takes on the proportions of a landmark. In this stillness, human activity seems more dramatic than it might elsewhere. Personalities are easily magnified in such an environment; dreams are bigger; hopes are grandiose.
"Every North American over 16 years of age shall be put to death," read the San Diego Plan, an example of a big dream in this arid land, and an example of how San Diego, Texas has always had a talent for attracting trouble. "Only the aged man, the woman, and the children shall be respected," the Plan continues. "And on no account shall the traitors to our race be spared or respected..."
The race in question was the Mexican race, although one would be hard-pressed to construe, for any reason other than a rhetorical one, Mexico's thoroughly mestizo population as being a race, per se. But during revolutions, perhaps most particularly during revolutions, people blur fine distinctions for rhetoric's sake. The Mexican Revolution was no exception, in the middle of its general violence and confusion, American authorities arrested a young Mexican ruffian in McAllen, Texas, and among his belongings authorities found a document entitled "Provisional Directorate of the Plan of San Diego, Tejas, State of Tejas, January 6, 1915," signed by six individuals, several of whom were said to live in that town. The Plan, which some now believe was a German propaganda plot, announced:
[O]n the 20th day of February, at two o'clock in the morning, we will rise in arms against the Government and country of the United States of North American, ONE AS ALL AND ALL AS ONE, proclaiming the liberty of the individuals of the black race and its independence of Yankee tyranny which has held us in iniquitous slavery since remote times; and at the same time and in the same manner we will proclaim the independence and segregation of the States bordering upon the Mexican nation, which are: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Upper California. Of which state and the Republic of Mexico was robbed in a most perfidious manner by North American Imperialism....
This uprising and seizure of land was to be conducted, the Plan explains, by a revolutionary army, "known as the LIBERATING ARMY FOR RACES AND PEOPLES," which would carry out a selective campaign of ethnic cleansing. "The APACHES of Arizona as well as the INDIANS (REDSKINS) of the territory, shall be given every guarantee; and their lands which have been taken from them shall be returned to them to the end that they may assist us in the cause which we defend...."
For as dubious or as needlessly melodramatic as the San Diego Plan may now seem, in 1915's atmosphere of global crisis — German poison gas on the Western Front, one million Russian troops marching on Prussia, Zapata's occupation of Mexico City — the notion of a race war along the U.S. border did not seem implausible. (Racial tensions were, across the world, running high at this time, as the Turkish involvement with Armenians in 1915 would suggest.) In fact, in 1915’s somewhat less glamorous atmosphere of local crisis in San Diego, Texas, the notion of a race war was neither out of sight nor out of mind.
There is no elegant way of simplifying San Diego's or Duval County's political history. Much of what can be said about it, in a way understandable to people not born and raised there, must be taken on faith or with a grain of salt. Much of the area's history is oral history — events were not so much recorded for prosperity as they were remembered and recounted for a laugh. And since the Texan sensibility tends to the comic, Texan memory tends to the broad. This isn't to say that Texan memory is unreliable; but it is to say that San Diegans' memories do not often square with official, often tamer versions of events.
For example, you can read in textbook histories of South Texas that until the 1880s, San Diego had been the "wool capital of the world" but that the "sheep boom collapsed...after an epidemic ravaged the flocks. Cattlemen replaced the sheepherders, and commerce prospered...."
Now, if you mention this official accounting of events to old-timers sitting, say, in Jerry's Diner near the courthouse, they will look at you with the wild glee they reserve for when they've got a whitetail buck in the crosshairs, and they will slap the table with meaty palms and they will guffaw so hard they almost choke on their Budweisers.
"Goddamn, epidemic, boy?" they'll howl. "That was an epidemic all right! Goddamn lead poisoning!"
And if your imagination tends rather to the literal than to the broad, and if you look at them as they howl with laughter, tears running down their wrinkled cheeks, and say, "Lead poisoning? You mean someone fed the sheep lead?" their laughter will grow only more intense. Even the waitress will set down her plate of tacos dorados and chuckle.
"No, boy, no!" they'll say, gasping for breath. "It was a goddamned range war, son! Them sheep was shot!"
You see, it's difficult to triangulate the coverage of San Diego's history, to figure in all possible leanings and predilections that might give any particular version of a story its individual slant. You go with what you have. And what you have tells you that about the time the Mexican ruffian was apprehended in McAllen with the San Diego Plan, while Turks were slaughtering Armenians, the racial politics card was being played in San Diego, Texas.
What happened is that during the 1910s, through an intricate series of political maneuvers — and "intricate" cannot begin to evoke the complexity of South Texas partisan politics — cattle rancher Archie Parr consolidated a Democratic political machine that would run Duval County for some 60 years. Like the aggressive scrub that took root in the grasslands, Parr moved into Duval County, adapted to its ways, and took control.
Archie Parr learned to speak Spanish, and through learning Spanish, Parr came to understand the desires and frustrations of Mexican-Americans, 90 percent of Duval County's population. His understanding was so keen that in 1912, when an election-inspired shoot-out between Anglos and Hispanics left three Mexicans dead in front of the county courthouse, Parr sided with Duval's Spanish speakers. The three Anglos charged with the shootings were acquitted in 1914; resentment toward gringos mounted. By early 1916, while Pancho Villa's soldiers were killing American citizens, Archie Parr, a descendent of Scottish immigrants, had become the de facto champion and spokesman for Hispanic concerns in Duval County.
This personal transition is all the more remarkable given Archie's temperament. History texts state that "outbursts of rage and arrogance" were Archie Parr's trademarks and that many in the state regarded Parr as "the symbol of the worst qualities in Texas politics: corruption, violence, and intransigent opposition to reform." Today's San Diegans, however, even those Mexican-Americans with little fondness for the Parr regime, will tell you that Archie Parr was "a pretty nice fella" when compared to his son George.
A symbol of corruption and violence. A pretty nice fella. Neither goes very far as an explanation of just how Archie conferred his considerable clout and political savvy to George. What is known is that Archie served as a Texas state senator for 20 years, was credited with the establishment of Texas A&I College, and that little George often served as his page in the capitol. Then, in 1926, when George was 25 and had a law degree from the University of Texas, his father saw to it that he was elected Duval County judge. (George was the only candidate on the ballot.) It was while county judge that George became known as Duval's "Sagebrush Caesar."
Archie is said to have hung on for another ten years before relinquishing the entirety of his political machine to his son. What George inherited was an elaborately financed fiefdom that used county jobs and county tax revenues as the fount from which Parr generosity flowed endlessly. Duval County's very poor residents — even into the 1950s unskilled laborers there mad as little as 40 cents an hour — relied on George's free hand with public funds. He gave them jobs when they needed them, gave them money and food when they were sick. And all he asked in return was absolute ballot-box obedience. (That some San Diego residents did, and still do, characterize this relationship as one of happy symbiosis is somewhat belied by the fact that George employed 200 "special deputy sheriffs," pistoleers, to ensure that any grumbling about such trifles as the Bill of Rights was kept to a tolerable minimum.)
While some in Duval County may have grumbled, others didn't, and the extent to which they didn't is made clear in an instance that received national attention. If George Parr's story sounds familiar, it's probably because bits and pieces of it were offered in Robert Caro's bestselling two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Path to Power, and Means of Ascent. Johnson was, according to Caro, no stranger to Parr's generosity.
Before the advent of televised campaigns, Texas's size made it a notoriously expensive state to canvass. It was not uncommon, Caro explains, for Texas state politicians to save time and money by simply buying south Texas votes outright. George Parr was well known as South Texas's most successful vote merchant. (There is an old, old San Diego joke that goes something like this. One day an old man came upon a little boy crying in front of the Duval County courthouse. The old man asked, "Son, why are you crying?" The boy answered, "Because my dad never comes to visit me." The old man patted him on the shoulder and said, "Son, you know, very well that your father's been dead for many years." "I know," said the boy, "but he comes here every year to the courthouse to vote."
At this juncture, however, the Parr-Johnston transaction becomes less clear. As was said earlier, it's difficult to handicap San Diego's history for bias. What is known is that in 1945 Johnson won the closest U.S. senatorial race in the nation's history. The 87 votes that gave Johnson the senate seat were cast in Alice, Texas, Precinct 13, next door to San Diego, in Jim Wells County, also a Parr stronghold. The voter lists for Box 13 "mysteriously disappeared." And Johnson was nicknamed "Landslide Lyndon." The truth of this transaction is unclear largely because of the clarity with which it has been viewed in retrospect.
In certain revisionist quarters, there is a tendency to see Box 13 as being more significant than it probably was in 1948. It is viewed as an omen. Undeniable spooky proof that America's escalation of the Vietnam War had been doomed from the outset of Lyndon's Texas-style corruption. It's an odd, house-that-Jack-built approach to history that takes for granted unfailing causality and eschews such key details as Kennedy's assassination. Nonetheless, Box 13 is frequently viewed as San Diego's gift to the roster of great turning points in American history.
"That's all bullshit. It's hogwash," the old men at Jerry's Diner will tell you about Box 13's alleged Vietnam involvement. "That's all hindsight. Politics happens when it happens, and there's no way those fellas could've foreseen what'd happen in the future. That's bullshit." But you've been reminded now, several times, of the difficulty of figuring the slant of any given San Diego story. You can take the old men's opinions or leave them.
The reason many minds track a direct route from Box 13 to the My Lai massacre is that it is a good story. It makes sense in a way that history usually doesn't. It's hard to resist a good story, and Lord knows George Parr couldn't. Everything about the man seemed adapted for Cinemascope from an Edna Ferber novel. "[He's] a dapper, confident little man of 53, with red-dyed hair and cold green eyes which do not smile no matter how hard he laughs...." wrote the Saturday Evening Post. the dyed-red hair is the telling detail. Parr had the vanity of a man who knew he was watched, a celebrity. And as a celebrity, as an absolute ruler, he no doubt had difficulty distinguishing what people said about him from the fact of who he was.
Among the many good stories that people tell about San Diego, Texas, is a fable of how the Parr family came to power. The Mexicans, they say, who'd lived in the area since the 18th Century, were accustomed to "strong leaders," to jefes — the kind of patronizing landowners who ruled their peasants' lives ruthlessly. South Texas Mexicans the story goes, were used to being subservient and, in fact, welcomed it. The Parr genius was in recognizing this innate masochism and exploiting it.
Young Mexican-Americans in San Diego today will make a sour face and swear when you tell them this fable. "It's not true," they'll say, "what happened was more complicated than that." What is true, or what is as possibly true as anything can be in Duval County, is that the fable was true only insofar as certain Mexican Americans, perhaps even the majority, saw it in their best interests to obey the Parr regime. Others did not. But the majority were compliant enough to convince George Parr of the fable and to blind him to what even every child knows. All fables, no matter how good, eventually come to an end.
George Parr was a man who counted on many things: that oil and natural gas would keep flowing; that the Mexicans would elect his candidates to office; that rain would fall; taxes would be collected; that he could drive his souped-up Chevy from Corpus Christi to Duval County line at 140 miles per hour unmolested by the Texas Rangers. But of all the things he counted on, there was one he most notably did not: World War II.
"Before we were sent overseas, we were indoctrinated about who and why we were going to fight. We were told that we were fighting for democracy. We were told that we were fighting against totalitarian governments, those of German and Japan, whose citizens had no freedom. We were told that we were not fighting against the citizens of those countries, but against their dictators.
"I spent three years in the U.S. Army. I served in New Guinea, Japan, and the Philippines. I was wounded in action. I spent two months in the hospital. I received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
"So, naturally, when we boys who'd served overseas came back to Duval County, we looked at things a little differently. We looked around us and we saw that we didn't have much political freedom in Duval County that the place was pretty much run by a dictator, Mr. George Parr. So, what do you think we did?"
The gentleman speaking, Donato Serna, is one of a group of San Diegans who in 1952 organized the Freedom Party. He sits in his very tidy office that is attached to his one-story brick home a few blocks east of the courthouse. He darts about the office, hands flying over filing cabinets, neatly stacked and collated papers, memos, the alphabetized and indexed paraphernalia of more than 80 years of living. And Serna has kept meticulous records.
"The Freedom Party," he says. "Let's see who's still alive..." His finger traces a list printed on an old flyer, an "Invitation to the citizens of Duval County to join us in our honest effort to terminate the shameful political domination of this county by one man...."
"Let's see," Serna says, searching the list. "He's dead. And he's dead. This one isn't doing too well. And I don't know if this one's dead or not..."
They were mostly veterans, and they'd returned to San Diego after having seen a broader world. Serna says their urge to organize wasn't any more complicated than that. They returned from the war knowing the rest of the world wasn't run like Duval County, and they felt that after serving their own country they deserved to be left alone to make a living and to vote as they pleased.
George Parr, of course, had other plans his own means of achieving them, like the time he beat Serna over the head with a flashlight.
"Well, word got out that we were organizing this party in opposition to Parr. Even the county sheriff was involved in it. But when the sheriff resigned suddenly from his position. Parr appointed himself sheriff, and things really started to get difficult. In 1948, my wife and I had purchased a drugstore, and my brother-in-law was running a bar right next door to it. We were all doing fine, making a living, until we started to organize the Freedom Party. Parr didn't like that. So after he got himself appointed sheriff, he and his deputies started hanging around in front of the bar and arresting every man who left for disorderly conduct or public drunkenness. Naturally, business started to slack off. So I went to an attorney and asked him what to do, and he told me that our rights, were being violated and that I should take pictures of what Parr and his men were doing.
"So one afternoon I went out there with my camera, and just as Parr and some of deputies were arresting this guy, I started taking pictures. They didn't like that, so they came over to rough me up a little and arrest me.
"I remember I put my arms up over my head to protect myself and I said, 'Don't beat me. Arrest me, but don't beat me.' So they put the cuffs on me and dragged me over to the courthouse. Now, instead of taking me to the jail, they took me to a little room under the courthouse, and when I saw what they were doing, I really thought I was in trouble. They sat me down and Parr came in. He wasn't a big man, but he was powerfully built, and I was afraid. He had a terrible temper. He comes in and he's real angry and he starts cussing me out in Spanish, and he's gettin' angrier and angrier, and all of a sudden he walks over and whops me on the head with this big old metal flashlight he was carrying. And I told him again, 'Don't beat me. Arrest me. Put me in jail. But don't beat me.'
"And Parr just looked at me and said, 'Vete a la chingada,' you know, like, 'Go to hell, get out of here.' So they let me go."
You can only wonder what went through Parr's mind as he stood over Serna with the bloody flashlight in his hand. What was he thinking? Why did he take pity on Serna? He could have beaten Serna badly or finished him off, and the rest of the Freedom Party malcontents would've had a fine example of what happened to those who crossed Parr. But Parr let Serna go. And in this moment of weakness, George Parr set himself up for his own slow undoing. It would take nearly 20 years before Parr's authority would wear down to nothing. Parr couldn't have known, however, on that hot afternoon in the courthouse basement, that the same hand that delivered the blow to Serna would eventually take his own life.
At least, that's one of the ways his story is told in San Diego. It's hindsight. Or, as the old men at Jerry's Diner say, "Politics happens when it happens." The actual path that led George Parr from the courthouse basement to his family ranch were, under indictment for tax evasion, with Texas Rangers closing in, he shot himself in the head, is more circuitous than local versions of the story may suggest.
Although the Freedom Party didn't do well in elections, Serna was appointed county auditor in 1954 and held the position until 1960. "We'd hear Mr. Parr outside our door," Serna remembers. "He knew what we were doing. He knew we were going through records. And we'd hear him pacing up and down the hallways cussin' and swearin'."
Serna's records, which he keeps current, show that under successive Parr regimes Duval County had the highest tax rates in the state of Texas. "Just look at it," Serna says, his finger hovering over the lines in a ledger. "In 1940, we paid an average of $3.40 per hundred dollars of taxable valuations. Today we pay about one dollar."
He turns the ledger aside and sighs. "This is all in the past," he says. "George Parr is dead."
Serna's records were one more thing George Parr hadn't counted on. Another was the Duval County Museum. San Diego's handsome town square is about a five-minute walk from Serna's house. It is a fine and lonely square, modeled on a Spanish plaza, ringed with white cement benches built by the WPA. In its center stands a white gazebo. Big, healthy-looking oaks surround the square, their trunks whitewashed in the Mexican manner. ("I just don't know why those folks do that," says a horticulturist for the state of Texas. "They say it keeps bugs off the trees, but there's no scientific evidence of that. I guess they think it just makes the trees look prettier. I don't like it because it looks unnatural. Now, someone gave me a recipe for that whitewash. It takes two gallons water, six ounces alum, six pounds of salt, one quart cheap molasses or one pound of glue. And I guess you can replace that alum with lime.") The church, of course, is an imposing presence on the square. The Duval County Museum is, however, demure, sitting quietly on the south side.
Maggie Rangel, born and raised in San Diego, is the sweet, wide-eyed woman who runs the museum. Every day she drives and parks in front of the museum, and every day she waits patiently for guests. If there is a moral to the Parr story, it's to be found in Maggie's quiet days. She remembers how people in San Diego feared George Parr, how some of them looked up to him "like a kind of god."
She remembers how, in the late 1940s, she was a young woman married to a man in Corpus Christi who liked to drink. He fooled around, got in trouble, and wound up in jail, and Maggie didn't have the money to get him out. So, she says, she put on a clean dress and took the bus to San Diego to ask, as many San Diegans did, for George Parr's help.
It was late in the afternoon by the time she got to San Diego, to Mr. Parr's office, and, she remembers, she was tired. Mr. Parr told her he didn't have time to take care of her, but if she'd come back first thing in the morning, he'd see what he could do. Maggie was embarrassed to go to her momma's home, to spend the night there, to tell her she'd come all the way from Corpus to ask Parr a favor. "He's not going to do a damned thing for you," Maggie's mother said.
But Maggie got up early the next morning and was at Parr's office by eight o'clock. And she waited. And she waited. And finally around one, Parr's secretary came out and asked her, "Maggie aren't you going to go home for lunch?" And Maggie said no, she'd just wait. She had to speak to Mr. Parr. Anyway, she didn't want to go home and face her mother. And the secretary said, "Why Maggie, didn't Mr. Parr tell you he was goin' huntin' today? He won't be back till tomorrow."
"I was so ashamed. My momma was right," Maggie says.
She tells you this story today, and her eyes get wide behind her glasses, and she laughs. "I guess you could say Parr was a kind of Hitler. A tyrant. I hated him. A lot of people did. But we didn't have any money."
While Mr. Parr may not have helped Maggie much, she now oversees what little is left of his legacy in the small upstairs George Parr Room in which dust-free glass cases display Parr's wallet, a copy of his will, and abstracts from papers written about Duval County by history students at University of Texas, Austin.
It's a sad little room, and Maggie seems to know that. There had been more in it once — Parr's hand carved bedroom set, his collection of silk ties, but donors had one-by-one reclaimed their donations.
"Small-town politics," giggles Maggie. "You know how it goes."
And if it's true that conquerors are the ones who decide what's remembered ultimately as history, it's instructive to note how Maggie dotes on the spare glass cases in the George Parr Room of the Duval County Museum. She scoots her smooth palm across their surfaces, worries about dust, worries about moisture yellowing what's left of Parr's worldly belongings, such as they're represented in the museum.
Adan Galvan, owner of Jerry's Diner, is careful, too, of what little he has left of the Parr legacy. Unlike Maggie, Galvan's a Parr supporter, or what passes for a Parr supporter nowadays in San Diego. It's difficult to ascertain exactly the story that links Galvan to Parr. Galvan is a circumspect man. He does allow, however, that he came to San Diego when he was an 8-year-old orphan and that he cooked for the Parr family for many years. He still cooks for the Parr family, what's left of the Parr family.
When Archer Parr blusters into Jerry's Diner, Galvan beams. Archer is George's nephew, whom George adopted and raised as his son. Archer is also the former Duval County sheriff who was removed from office in the mid-1970s, after being convicted of perjuring himself before a Texas grand jury. He spent four years in an Illinois prison for his "alleged" lies.
The "alleged" is crucial because when Archer talks about his conviction, he leads you to believe there was more to it than that. He alludes to dark schemes, to setups, to, in fact, the kind of chicanery that has characterized this county since its inception. Perhaps that's why he, as a Parr, is able to look back at the whole series of events with equanimity. ("You can't cry over spilt buttermilk," Archer remarked to a Houston Chronicle reporter in November 1992. "I accept what happened.")
Anyway, he'd rather talk about the land. He'd rather talk about the deer, and the feral pigs, and the wild boar, and the wild turkeys, and the differences between a South Texas cowboy and one from the West. He'd rather sit down to a big plate of quail that Galvan has fixed for him special, just the way he likes, and flirt with the waitress in her clipped, monotone Spanish natives speak in this part of the world. He makes lurid Spanish puns, and wiggles his eyebrows at the waitress, and laughs out loud at his own jokes. He crushes his Budweiser can with one hand and fiddles with his baseball cap's brim.
He does a fine impersonation of a South Texas good ole boy, but he can't help betraying the fact that he's a man of considerable education. He's erudite. His familiarity with local botany and zoology and national politics is encyclopedic. There's a definite question about just why such a well-educated man would have dedicated his adult life to service of Duval County's parochial politics.
But Archer Parr isn't a man given to the backward glance. (Remember, "That's all bullshit. It's hindsight." He's the Jerry's Diner old-timer who said it. "You can't cry over spilt buttermilk.")
"Go on down to Benavides," he'll tell you when you ask about the Parr family. "They're all down there in the cemetery. That'll tell you all you need to know." And he'll scoot his crushed Bud can at you across the table for added emphasis.
On your way out the door to Benavides, Galvan might take a few minutes to show you the shoe tree he bought from George Parr's widow. The humble device has a little knob of bright steel fixed to one side so new shoes would make room for George's sizable bunion. Galvan handles the shoe tree gingerly, in an unnerving way, as if it were a precious artifact, a bone fragment from a saint. Remember, some people looked up to Parr "like a kind of god." That's what Maggie at the Duval County Museum said.
"He was a good friend" is all Galvan has to say, by way of explanation of the shoe tree.
Texas Highway 359 takes you south to Benavides, where you will, as Archer said, find what you need to know.
Benavides is, as several very large billboards announce, not so much the Parr family's final resting places as it is "HOME OF THE 6-TIME WORLD CHAMPION BATON TWIRLER, BONNIE PALACIOS." (Ms. Palacios's international honors: 1980 USA, 1981 France, 1982 Japan, 1983 Italy, 1984 Canada, 1987 France.) There is no sign in Benavides to tell you where to find George Parr's grave.
There is nothing remarkable about it once you find it. After all this, an anti-climax. George is there along with his momma, and his daddy, and all the in-laws and sanguine hangers-on. The family plot is surrounded by a low wrought-iron fence. The gate is held closed with a knot of rusty wire. George Parr's headstone is clean. "Remembered by his wife and daughter," it says in Spanish along the bottom.
This epitaph is not as simple as it seems. It's another example of how Duval County history is open to interpretation. George Parr was married times, and each marriage produced a daughter who he named Georgia. The use of this singular, "daughter" not "daughters," hija not hijas, is not, however, a deliberate misrepresentation of facts. It's merely another example of how, in Duval County, personal interpretations assert themselves over official versions of events. This particular interpretation differs from most others in the county only insofar as it is, literally, written in stone.
"Have you seen San Diego's graveyard yet?" is one of the first questions Alfredo Cardenas, San Diego's mayor, will ask you, should you visit. "There's a lot of history there. You can see just how old the town is."
As a member of the new generation running San Diego and Duval County, and as a newspaperman, Cardenas naturally sees his city's graveyard as a point of departure for historical speculation rather than a place for drawing conclusions. The lichen-covered markers, the dusty, faded plastic flowers, the fresh graves are, for Cardenas, symbols of a past from which San Diego is only now starting to emerge.
The long years of the Parr dynasty had left San Diego pretty much bankrupt. George tolerated other gringos in Duval only if they, like oil and natural gas companies, paid their taxes in the county and lived elsewhere. At the turn of the century, San Diego was a cosmopolitan town with Greeks, and Italians, and Germans, and Jews. (The large downtown Levy Building has been a dry goods store. For decades, it stood abandoned and is now home to Fishers of Men Worship Center, a Pentecostal church. On Sunday mornings at 11 o'clock, you can hear the voice of Pastor Lopez's wife leading the congregation in a melancholy rendition of "I'll Fly Away.") But the Parrs were protective of their power and their special relationship with Duval's Hispanic population. Consequently, the non-Hispanic mercantile class gradually left the county. Some locals remember a pamphlet circulated after World War II that explained local demographics more succinctly: "A White Man Doesn't Stand a Jap's Chance in Duval County," it read.
"I think we've got two white families here," Cardenas guesses. "And a couple of years ago we had two black residents — guys local girls had married up in Houston, but I haven't seen them around lately."
As a result, the racial politics that dominated the county's history for so long is a non-issue for Cardenas. In fact, the Chicano Rights movement of the '60s and '70s bypassed Duval entirely. (The term "Chicano" doesn't carry much emotional weight in San Diego, Cardenas says he remembers first hearing it used when he went to college in San Antonio in the late '60s. And he remembers that "Chicano" was pejorative. Most San Diegans call themselves Mexicans or Mexican-Americans.)
Cardenas can busy himself with other problems, like the renovation of the town square, where prosperous local families are now buying up 19th-century office buildings and stores at bargain prices and are turning them into showcase homes. He can worry about the completion of the library, the first public library in Duval County, now being set up in a downtown building that long ago housed a bank owned by a German immigrant family and was later owned by George Parr.
The library's director, Rodolfo Curiel, shares something strangely in common with other prominent San Diegans — he lived in San Diego, California. Curiel was a linebacker for Serra High School's team in the late '80s, and his picture hangs on the "Wall of Fame" in the Round Table Pizza in Tierrasanta. Jose Jimenez, the city administrator, lived in San Diego, California, for eight and a half years. Even Archer Parr, sitting in Jerry's Diner, fondly remembers the time he spent in San Diego. "I did my basic training there in Oceanside, and in my free time I'd drive around San Diego. Good God, it was beautiful," Archer recalls.
The mayor, however, has never lived in San Diego, California. Cardenas is an affable, prosperous-looking fellow who, in addition to being San Diego's mayor, is also publisher of the Duval County Picture, an award-winning eight-page weekly whose masthead says, "We Tell It Like It Is!" You might say Cardenas has publishing in his blood, or perhaps more correctly blood in his publishing. Cardenas learned the power of the press in an unforgettable way. His father was a poet and a printer, and when the mayor was a baby, he crawled toward one of his father's printing presses, which his brother was powering by foot. The future publisher of the Duval County Picture thrust his tiny right hand into the machine, and the greasy metal gears tore off two of his fingers.
The bloodthirsty press sits in the garage of the two-story white house on the town square where Cardenas's 84-year-old father still lives. His father, whose poems have been widely anthologized in the Spanish-speaking world, putters about his old printing presses with a trembling black-and-white Chihuahua at his heels. He's very, very proud of his son. Alfredo although, he says, he never cared much for politics. Archie Parr, George Parr, Archer Parr, the whole grand hectic scheme of Duval movers and shakers were never of much consequence to him. He was interested in his poems.
Perhaps he was right. Given his literary bent, perhaps he understood in a profound way that the brutality and the corruption and the obsessive wills to power, in the end, didn't matter much. George Parr, the San Diego Plan, Box 13 were only anecdotes. They were stories. And stories are endlessly open to interpretation.
The wisdom of the poet's modest interests is most clearly understood when you take a short drive out of town on Texas Highway 359 heading south to Benavides. On the left-hand side of the road, if you don't drive too fast, you'll see a big, white, Spanish-style home that looks particularly imposing around sunset. It was George Parr's house, and it has a swimming pool, cavernous garage, and a barbecue large enough to accommodate comfortably a side of beef. The burden of unpaid taxes and penalties rests so heavily on the 14-room house that it seems to sag a little on its foundations. The grass needs mowing, the flower beds need weeding, and the house could use a few coats of paint.
But Parr's widow Evita and her husband Ireneo, who live there aren't as young as they used to be, and the upkeep on such a large place is long, hard work.
In its day, the house must have really been something -— people called it the White Palace. It was the biggest home for miles around. Ireneo still brings great respect to it. He marches around the grounds and points out interesting features of the house's construction. He's proud of its epic past and is at the same time amused that strangers want to know about it. Evita doesn't have much to offer on the subject. She peers from behind the back screen door and reminds Ireneo that it's time for dinner and that she wants very badly to get to her bingo game on time. ("I don't talk to the press," Evita says from behind the screen door. "You won't print what I say anyhow." She's a woman well acquainted with the difficulty of controlling a story's retelling and revisions.)
Ireneo, on the other hand, doesn't care too much about what others think. "George Parr was a good man," he grunts as he pulls open the huge door to the dark six-car garage.
"He was a damned good hunter, too. Just look at this."
The sun outside is fading. Ireneo turns on the lights. The whole huge rear wall of the garage is filled with examples of the whitetail bucks George Parr shot in his lifetime. 163 pairs of lifeless, beady eyes stare blankly down at Ireneo.
He chuckles. "There used to be more, but a few years back someone broke in and stole about 20 of 'em. They're collector's items. Some fella from Houston offered me $56,000 dollars for all of 'em, but I didn't take it."
"It's quite a sight, ain't it?" From her gloomy doorway, Evita calls again. Ireneo hasn't forgotten about her bingo game, has he?
"I'd better get goin'," he says, grinding out his cigarette on the garage floor. Before he turns out the lights and closes the door, he takes one last look at the deer. He laughs and shakes his head, "It's really somethin'."
Outside, the light has faded fast. Soon Evita will go to her bingo game and return to her bed, where maybe she'll dream about winning a bundle to pay off the White Palace's taxes. And Ireneo beside her may dream of recovering the stolen deer heads. Down the road, in town, Mayor Cardenas may dream of federal grants, the new library, and maybe, when deep asleep, have a nightmare of the machine that ate his fingers. Maggie will dream of an entire George Parr wing of the Duval County Museum that yearly attracts thousands of visitors. Mr. Serna will dream of pristine ledgers with accurate figures recorded in the blackest ink. And Archer Parr? Archer Parr could dream of his glory days as a Duval County sheriff or of the years he spent in an Illinois federal prison. Maybe he'll dream of George Parr, the man who adopted and raised him. Deep in the soul of Benavides, George's dreaming days are over.
Each of them will pass the night in their individual way, their minds humming peacefully with stories of what they've seen and what's been told to them. They will pass the night in sleep's benign isolation. But in the morning they will all, except for George, rise and come together under one roof, the vast and luminous Duval County sky.