OK, we probably shouldn’t start with the possum. We should start in the beginning, with West Texas.
West Texas is where my husband and I are both from — a flat, desolate part of the world with endless horizons, a few gnarled mesquite trees, and spectacular sunsets. It’s a hard, unforgiving land, dusty, windswept and hot, and something about it draws — or creates — inhabitants who are flinty and unblinking. Many are of Scots-Irish descent. Their churches preach hellfire and damnation and their politics turn far, far right on red, green and every other color.
It’s funny. I could never live in West Texas again. But it’s shaped me permanently, giving me a dislike of mountains (too claustrophobic for my taste) and a low tolerance for people who put on airs. When my friend Brenda — who’s also from West Texas — and I recently heard Christopher Buckley interviewed, Brenda stomped out of the auditorium complaining about Buckley’s affected, semi-British accent.
“Maybe it’s just my West Texas coming out,” she huffed. “But I couldn’t stand that.”
I knew exactly what she meant. To boot, Buckley would probably have no idea that Colorado City, which is where Brenda is from, is pronounced with a long “a.” Ignorance is everywhere.
Which is precisely what another West Texas friend, Mark, was talking about at dinner recently. He told the story of a group of preschoolers in a small West Texas town who had been shown a variety of pictures to stimulate their vocabulary. They did pretty well, until they were shown a drawing of an umbrella. None of the kids knew what it was. This makes a certain amount of sense when you live in a part of the country that gets five or six inches of rainfall annually.
Anyway, that led my husband to tell our own story of West Texas shame. Almost 40 years ago, after he and I first moved to Austin, we were taking a walk in our neighborhood. As we neared our apartment, we were astonished by the sight of a possum scurrying across the street.
A possum! We were dumbstruck. We’d never seen anything like it. It must have just escaped from the zoo, we agreed.
We rushed back to our place and my husband quickly called the police to report the sighting. A few minutes later, a couple of cops arrived. We excitedly explained what had happened and where they could possibly recapture the possum, if they were quick.
They just stood there, nodding politely. “Where are you all from?” one of them asked, finally.
Oh, well, Midland, we said.
They exchanged glances and nodded. They didn’t seem terribly surprised.
“You all take care,” one of them said as they left. They got in their car and drove off in the opposite direction of the escaped possum.
Umbrellas, possums in the wild, Christopher Buckley and his accent: When you’re from West Texas, so much of life is a big mystery just waiting to be figured out.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)