Saturday, October 20, 2012

Nothing Can Go Wrong ... Go Wrong ... Go Wrong

Big Tex in happier times.

Back when I was in high school, I attended a weeklong journalism workshop on the SMU campus. Several non–journalism activities (more of a social nature) were scheduled that week as well, including the showing of the movie "Westworld" after the workshop concluded.

I was reminded of that movie when I first saw video footage of Big Tex in flames at the Texas State Fair — or, to be more precise, I was reminded of Yul Brynner, the evil robotic gunslinger, and "Westworld"'s tagline — "Westworld — where nothing can go wrong ... go wrong ... go wrong."

These days, I teach journalism in the Dallas community college system, which includes advising the students on the newspaper staff.

The paper is published weekly, and each edition is completed on Friday. (The paper is then distributed the following Tuesday.) The advisers have to be there until the last page is done, which is actually a lot of fun for me. It reminds me of the days when I used to work on newspaper copy desks.

It also reminds me of what working for a newspaper is like, the nightly challenge of playing beat the clock. There are things you expect — like deadline pressure — and things you don't expect — namely, the news.

Well, of course you expect news! It's your business, after all. But it is often a reactive sort of business. Sometimes you do know what to expect, albeit in a general sort of way, like when a trial is scheduled at the courthouse or a big game is about to be played at the high school. You don't know what the outcome will be, but you know the trial — or the game or whatever — is coming up.

Much of the time, though, you cannot anticipate what the news will be. You simply react to whatever happens.

Which brings me to yesterday.

I was driving to the campus Friday when I heard on the radio that Big Tex, the iconic figure from the Texas State Fair, had burned.

I didn't grow up here, but I know many people who did, and I knew Big Tex was special to them. He's been greeting visitors to the Texas State Fair with his robust "Howdy, folks!" since 1952.

Any journalist in this area — and, for that matter, in neighboring areas — ought to know that. And I was pleased to find out, when I walked into the newsroom, that the student newspaper staff was on top of it. A photographer was on the scene (and came back with some great photos), and one of the reporters was trying to reach a professor on the faculty who is something of a Texas State Fair historian (and has written a book or two on the subject — or so I am told).

The professor couldn't be located, but the reporter uncovered some interesting facts that I didn't know.

I didn't know, for example, that Big Tex started as Santa Claus in a town southeast of here called Kerens.

And then a mayor of Dallas, R.L. Thornton — whose name adorns a stretch of road here that is always jammed. It is always mentioned whenever the TV or radio stations report about traffic problems — purchased Big Tex, and he's been greeting visitors to the fair ever since.

The folks at the fair swear he will be back next year, presumably with a more current wardrobe and some new boots, but it didn't look too promising when he left Fair Park in what looked an awful lot like a body bag.

As the afternoon wore on, I felt more and more like Murray, the news writer on the Mary Tyler Moore Show who kept coming up with sick jokes about a colleague at the TV station, known only as Chuckles the Clown, who had been killed at a circus parade when he dressed as a character named Peter Peanut and a rogue elephant shelled him to death.

(When Lou Grant observed that it was a good thing more people weren't hurt, Murray agreed and said, "You know how hard it is to stop after just one peanut.")

Since I first saw that episode back in the '70s, I've discovered that there was a lot of truth in it. I spent many years working in newsrooms, and they are breeding grounds for gallows humor. Virtually nothing is sacred.

And I've lived in Texas long enough to know that Big Tex is sacred — or, at least, semi—sacred — to many.

But I really had no idea just how sacred he was until yesterday.

In the reporter's article, there was a quote from a girl who said she had been to the fair just a week ago and shot some video footage of Big Tex for a project on which she was working in school. "And now he's gone," she said to the reporter.

As I read it, I could imagine her eyes welling up with tears.

Then, as I was driving home from the campus around 8 p.m., I heard someone on one of the radio stations doing a tribute program to Big Tex.

"We've lost a friend today," the host said somberly as the song "My Heart Will Go On" (from "Titanic") played in the background.

Maybe it was all done tongue in cheek, but it sounded deadly serious to me.

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