Friday, October 19, 2012

What's the Opposite of "Howdy"?

To readers outside of Texas, and possibly even some here in the Lone Star State, this post and the emotions behind it aren't going to make much sense.  But I know there are others out there like me, who feel the need to eulogize a 52-foot-tall talking cowboy today.

This morning, shortly after 10:00 a.m., Big Tex - the iconic symbol of the State Fair of Texas who has greeted visitors since 1952 - caught fire and was destroyed. Only his metal frame and his hands remain.

Big Tex (1952-2012), in happier and less crispy times.
If you know me, through this blog or through my alter ego as a real person, then you know that I love me some State Fair of Texas. It is perhaps the one way in which this girl from the south side of Milwaukee truly and completely embraces Texan culture. The Baudelaire family has attended the Fair every year since its inception (the Baudelaire family's inception, not the Fair's...that's been around since 1886).

For me, Fair Day is literally the best day of the year. It's about family and rides and pig races and corny dogs and the gorgeous Art Deco architecture of Fair Park. It smells like fried foods and livestock and new car smell. I love every minute I spend at the Fair.

But of all the indelible images that bespeak the State Fair of Texas, there is none more iconic than Big Tex. True story: he started out life as a giant Santa Claus, albeit an extremely creepy-looking one. I guess back in the mid-20th century, scaring children had a higher priority than it does now. In any event, in 1952 Santa was repurposed as a giant cowboy, complete with boots and a 10,000-gallon hat.

A year after his debut, Big Tex was given the ability to talk - after a fashion. What he really did was say "Howdy, folks!" and recite daily Fair activities in a lugubrious drawl that must be some New Yorker's fever dream of what a Texan sounds like. But when you're 52 feet tall, you have talk

I haven't told Cornelius the bad news yet.
He will be a sad monkey.
Every year I take a picture of Big Tex. I don't know why; apart from having his oversized wardrobe updated every few years, dude never changed. But saying I didn't need any more pictures of Big Tex would have been like saying we don't need any more pictures of the Eiffel Tower or the Guggenheim. Every new photo is a touchstone, a snapshot not just of a thing but of a moment. A renewal of faith in both the past and the future.

You think that's sappy? When you can watch your child grow up in a time-lapse series of pictures with a giant cowboy without tearing up, then knock me for being sappy.

They say it was an electrical short that caused the fire, and that it took just a few minutes for Big Tex to be fully engulfed. No one was injured, and no other structures were damaged. But Big Tex is gone.

OMG, that's gruesome to behold.
Now, don't jump my shit here, because I know I'm talking about something completely different in magnitude and impact. But when I first saw that photo of Big Tex in flames, I couldn't help feeling a shudder similar to how I felt on 9/11. Nobody died, nothing was under attack, and we're talking about a statue of a cowboy, not two massive office towers filled with human beings. Still, there was a shadow of the same sense of disbelief that something so iconic could be gone so suddenly. As I read the first news report of the fire, I struggled to come to grips with the loss of something I took for granted as permanent, even eternal. Despite how large Big Tex loomed in the collective mind and heart of Texas, it was just as vulnerable to natural laws as any of us who looked up at him year after year.

My Facebook feed is filling up with Big Tex news as we speak...everything from expressions of dismay and sympathy to tacky jokes. And yeah, the punny "Tex is toast" made me laugh even as I sat in front of my computer literally near tears. But I really, truly am sad about this. I just saw him two weeks ago. He seemed fine. You just never know.

See, it even sounds like mourning the death of a loved one.

State Fair officials are already talking about rebuilding Big Tex - stretching a new cowboy skin over the frame and whipping up a new set of duds for him to wear. I have no doubt there will be plenty of donors willing to fund the effort and restore Big Tex to his rightful place in front of the Fletcher's Corny Dog stand. As the Facebook wags have already started to repeat and share, we can rebuild him, better, stronger, faster than before.

But I miss the old Tex already.

Goodbye, old friend. May I suggest that your new cowboy shirt, when it is sewn, should feature a phoenix prominently embroidered on its pointed yoke?


  1. OH NOOOO!!! I am SO sorry for your loss! At least he went quickly. How ironic that I just posted something on my Facebook today about not being on fire... Now I feel like a dick!

    It's ridiculous how a "thing" can become so important to us, isn't it? I mean - it's just a "thing" ...
    But, no. It's really not.
    At least you have all the pictures you'd taken over the years to look at and remember. That's really what it's all about. The memories.
    Hopefully Tex will be rebuilt bigger and better than ever. Maybe they'll even hold a contest to design his outfit and you can get in on that.

    You have to find a way to break it to Cornelius gently though. And soon! He's going to catch the news eventually, and that poor monkey is going to be DEVASTATED! Maybe get him a big banana split and a journal & crayons so he can draw out his feelings.
    No one likes a depressed monkey.

    1. Actually, I thought the things not on fire page was hilarious. I didn't even make the connection until you mentioned it. I hope they didn't have a picture of Big Texas on the page. Thanks for the crayons idea; I think Corny will appreciate it. :)

  2. This year we went to the fair (me and my office co-workers for fair day). I had not been to the fair in close to 15 years since my kids were small.

    Had I not gone this year and took my last images of Big Tex, I would have been bummed even more.

    Good by old pal....


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