“Western history is bizarre because of the nature of what it has got. Historians and other writers do what men have always done in the desert. They make the best of what little they do have. Westerners have developed a talent for taking something small and blowing it up to a giant size like a photographer blows up a photograph. They write of cowboys as if they were noble knights and cowmen, kings. They do biographies of bad men, Billy the Kid, The Plummer gang, and Sam Bass, of bad women like Calamity Jane, of gunmen like Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickock. They blow the abandoned saloon up into an art museum and Boot Hill into a shrine for pilgrims. In Montana, Charlie Russel is better than Titian, and in the Black Hills, Fredrick Remington is greater than Michelangelo. Custer, who blundered to his death and took better men with him, found a place in every saloon not already preempted to that travesty on decency and justice, Judge Roy Bean.” As quoted by J. Frank Dobie, Texas Author, and Historian
I have no qualms or embarrassment about growing up in Texas. I am a native son and proud of it. If the Alamo needed defending again, I would fight the attackers on top of its wall with a yard hoe and my typewriter as weapons. At times, my unchecked pride borders on braggart, but I don’t interact with many folks that are not Texans, so it’s a moot point.
Storytelling and tall tales run in my family. Uncles, grandfathers, and sometimes grandmothers filled my head with tales I remember today. I’m writing as fast as I can before I forget them. My son and grandchildren will be better educated once they have them in print. No one in my family wrote down what was told around the supper table or the front porch. I can assume that they figured the spoken version was good enough, and for decades, it has been, but now it’s my quest to put them to paper and pass them on. It doesn’t matter that many of them are about half true and could be considered a “tall tale.”
The revered Texas author, historian, and master of tales, J. Frank Dobie understood the flow of Texas and its people. He told of the hardscrabble farming of the hill country, horse and cow trading, lost gold mines and Indian fighting, and of the Texas Rangers and their heroic and often ghastly behavior because he had lived and seen it as a child and young man and procured the tales, though many tall by nature, from cowboys and characters around campfires or leaning on the bar-rail of a saloon. He himself was considered a character, but with a top-notch university education. Spoken tales, true or not, are as much a part of Texas as our majestic bovine, the Longhorn.
From my two late uncles, who were brothers Bill and Jay Manley, I heard stories that, on some nights, made sleep impossible, either from fear or captivation. They were the two best liars and storytellers I have met. Often, there would be a discussion and a following challenge to witness something they had heard about at the feed store or domino hall. They thirsted for the unordinary and would drive fifty miles or more to view a three-legged chicken or a pig that saved a farmer’s family from a house fire; things that sane and educated people would pshaw. My cousin Jerry and I were backseat passengers on many of these excursions.
Their preferred stage was summer nights on the farmhouse front porch. My grandparents had no air conditioning or television, and the radio only sometimes worked, so listening to their stories and trying to catch a cooling breeze was the only entertainment. The occasional yip of the Coyote added flavor to the moment. A Coleman cooler of iced Pearl Beer sat between the two orators, and the cold beverage allowed the tales to spill from them, most times like Will Rogers, other times like Saturday nights inebriated cowboy. I am a lucky man to have retained them for all these years. I credit my grandfathers’ advice to “keep your mouth shut and listen.” I was a good listener when I wasn’t yammering on to hear myself talk.
In the summer of 1957, my cousin Jerry and me were sitting with some of the family on the front porch of my grandparent’s farmhouse when my two uncles argued about something they had heard at the domino hall. A lady in Bangs, a small village about eleven miles away, is said to have a flock of hens that lays colored eggs. She calls them her “Easter Chickens.” Uncle Bill, ever the pragmatic questioner but still a believer in the oddities and unexplained, stated that “it was impossible for chickens to lay colored eggs” Jay, his brother, heard from three farmers playing dominos that it is the by-God truth. The argument concluded with the promise of a trip to Bangs in the morning to investigate. As usual in these challenges, a wager of five dollars was attached.
After directions from the local feed store, the source of all directions in Texas, our party proceeded to our destination. Detailed directions said to go five miles on the second dirt road out of town, turn left at the “Jesus Saves” sign on the tree trunk, and go about a hundred yards or so, and you’ll see the farm, a white house with red shutters, and lots of Holstein cows wandering around.
The lady that answered the door, Thalia McMurtry, figured we were there to purchase her “Easter Chicken” eggs. She wasn’t amused that all my uncles wanted to do was confirm if it were true; still, she led them back to the hen house. Her husband, Sonny, joined us. Around a dozen speckled hens were inside a cute little hen house, sitting on their box nest. Thalia stepped inside and retrieved a few eggs, placing them in her apron pocket. Two were bright red, one yellow, and one a deep blue. Uncle Bill sighed; he knew he had lost the wager. The eggs were beautiful; it was as if she had dropped them into a boiling stove pot of egg dye. She told Jerry and me, “go ahead and peel one; they’re ready to eat just as they are, already hard-boiled and everything.” Uncle Bill called BS; no chicken in this world lays hard-boiled eggs, and he accused Thalia and Sonny McMurtry of fakery to the highest degree and to explain how they did it.
Thalia, not a bit rebuffed, said, “I started mixing my own mash feed using different stuff from the kitchen cabinet with the regular store-bought mash, and the hens started laying yellow eggs, so I tinkered around a little more, and they started laying blue eggs, then a bit more, and red ones appeared. We’re not sure why they are hard-boiled, but maybe it’s caused by the heat lamps we use to keep my little beauties warm has something to do with it.” My two uncles, feeling like the village idiots, purchased a few dozen mixed colors and took them back to the farm. My grandmother, faking surprise at their discovery, had eaten a few of them some months back, given to her by a friend, but she didn’t tell her sons. Once again, another adventure of the absurd to remember.
Years later, I read a blurb in the Texas Farm Almanac about a lady in Bangs, Texas, who ran a farm called “Easter Chicken Acres.” Her hens laid hard-boiled multi-colored eggs just in time for Easter. She was also mentioned in the famous book “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” and made Bangs a place to visit. They came really close to putting the Easter Bunny out of business.
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