It is with great sadness that I tell you of the passing of my friend, Charlie Yates unexpectedly left the chains of this earth this past week. When I had a question about Texas, I could count on him to set me straight about all things Texan. He was not only a great resource but a good friend as well. I admired and respected the heck out of him. I cherish every moment of time I spent with him. I was so excited when her agreed to let me interview him for my new book, Texas in Her Own Words, Second Edition. We met at the Cheddar’s Restaurant on I-10 in West Houston and spent a couple or three hours together talking abut our favorite subject: Texas. In honor of Charlie, I want to share his interview in the book with you.
(This is Charlie at one of the Texas Revolution Reenactments.)
Charlie Yates is deeply rooted in Texas. I think I learn something new about Texas every time I talk with him. His Texas roots go back to the days of the Republic of Texas. He is very knowledgeable not only about the state’s history, but the things that make Texas and Texans tick. He has been a longtime member of the Texian Legacy Association. They are a group of Texan Revolution Era reenactors who recreate how life was lived back in the day of the Texas Revolution. They quickly impress you with their authentic costumes, firearms, cannon, and knowledge. These people are very passionate about what they do. They become a living history of the era. Charlie always seems to have a smile on his face as he did when he shared his insight with me.
Charlie: I was born in Laredo, Texas. Many, many, years ago, my dad was a federal law enforcement officer and we lived all over South Texas with his job. I grew up and graduated high school in Runge, TX
Tweed: I guess I have known you for at least eight or nine years. My first encounter with you was at the Texas State Cemetery. I had never been there before. The Texas reenactors provided some of the ceremony elements out there on Texas Independence Day. That was the first time I saw you and I was greatly impressed. As it turned out, we became friends over those years. I admire greatly what you do.
Charlie: Thank you Tweed, I appreciate that. The Texas State Cemetery is the hidden secret jewel in Austin. It is a beautiful place with an awful lot of history buried out there. There are 60 odd veterans of the Texas Revolution buried there. A lot of the Civil War Confederate dead are buried out there. It’s a history of Texas. Just recently we had a celebration there for Stephen F. Austin’s birthday. He is buried there. Several years ago, we decided since we had that so close at hand in Austin that we need to remember those people. So we use it quite frequently. The cemetery people are very happy to have us come out there and bring attention to that area.
When Bob Bullock was still Lt. Gov. he invested about $5 million in that place to renovate. They did a beautiful job on it. It’s just gorgeous. You can walk through there and see the whole history of the state.
Jay Johnson started “Celebrate Texas” in 1999. Jay passed away a few years later and I eventually became president of the organization. We put on the Texas Independence Day parade, and a 5K run. We have the ceremony out at the State Cemetery. We have an Alamo ceremony on the south steps of the capitol and there is a rotunda ceremony that we take part in, so we have an awful lot of things going on around March 2 for the birth of Texas.
Tweed: How did you get involved with the reenactors?
Charlie: Ha Ha. A friend of mine and I heard that they were having a ceremony at Washington on the Brazos Park on March 2. So we wanted to go and we figured if we dressed up in period costume that they would let us in free, so when we got there, the guy in the parking area told us, “Because you all are dressed up, you just park right up front.” We thought, “Well that’s pretty cool.” Then that’s when we found out they didn’t charge anybody anything to get in it. So we wound up there dressed like a couple of people from 1836 and Carrol Lewis who was a general of the Texas Army invited us to join in and we just went from there. In 1996, I became a colonel in the Texas Army and have been involved in Texas history up to my armpits ever since.
One of the things I tried to bring home to people is that all of these historical people and not just in Texas history, but George Washington, Winston Churchill, and the rest; they were people just like you and I and they had the same hopes and dreams for their children. They had a goal in life to make it better for their children than they had. In studying how they did that, it gives us a kind of road map to help us deal with things that we have to deal with. The problems, what few there are in my life, I’m not the first one to have those. There are other people had those problems. That’s a major reason for me to study history and try to pass that on.
Tweed: I have always considered the Texas Revolution a microcosm of the American Revolution except maybe our people were a little more colorful.
Charlie: Well it was. There are an awful lot of similarities. If the early United States didn’t have help from France, we would not have won the revolution. If Texas had not had help from the United States, we would not have won the revolution. Up until the opening few months before the first shots of Lexington and Concord, the vast majority of the people of the United States were loyal British subjects. That turned relatively overnight into a rebellion. The same thing happened in Texas. The Texas Revolution lasted nine months, which is a very short period of time. Stephen F. Austin went from a loyal Mexican subject in 1835 to being the Commander-in-Chief of the Texas Army in latter 1835. There was a lot of change in a very short period of time.
Tweed: Charlie, I know you are a great student of history and you have lived here your whole life. What, in your estimation, makes Texas special?
Charlie: You know, that question has been argued for 200 years. To me, what makes Texas special—it’s the land of the great second chance. If you look at Houston, Travis, David Crockett—they all came here after failing someplace else. In Texas, I believe it has a genetic memory for folks like that. Even if you get as recently as the refugees from Vietnam who came here and started with nothing. Many of them have become very, very successful. And what it boils down to is if you have not been a success someplace else, and you come to Texas, and you’re willing to work hard; assume personal responsibility for what you do; that you do exercise some personal initiative individually; have courage, be able to sacrifice for the long-term goals and in essence throw in with us, you’ll find you will be very, very successful, because there’s a lot of us who have experienced that or whose family has experienced that. My people came here in 1832. In fact, we had one group that came here when it was still Spanish territory, prior to 1821 so they were starting over. They had nothing. Some had failed businesses or relationships. Things like that back in their states and they needed a clean slate to start over with—and Texas gave them that. It’s not easy of course. But I just don’t see that type of opportunity elsewhere. Goodnight and Loving out in West Texas when they started the cattle drives, there was a lot of risk involved not only monetarily, but physically. I don’t see where you can do that in many other places particularly today. So without using the phrase, “the land of opportunity,” it’s a land of opportunity.
Tweed: I have often joked that Texas was settled by golfers. Think about it—all these people were looking for mulligans. They wanted do overs. Moses Austin, Crockett, Bowie, Travis, they were all looking to start over and I submit that that was the rule rather than the exception.
Charlie: That’s absolutely true, and it carries forth with a lot of the other people who came to Texas. After the battle of San Jacinto, the Texians captured about 600 Mexican soldados. A great number of those old soldados went back home with the Texans and worked on their plantations and their descendants still live in the Houston area today. There was nothing for them in Mexico. They needed a place to start over. And Texas was the place.
Tweed: What does it mean to you personally, to be a native Texan?
Charlie: Well it’s a double-edged sword. There’s pride involved of course, but if you look at the people who came here that gave me my foundation early on, some of them weren’t pillars of the community, ya know. And so you have to balance this. I’m a sixth generation Texan near as I can figure. It’s a source of a great amount of pride. It gives me an anchor. I’ve known people from other places that don’t have that benchmark to go back to. And they wonder at it, you know. They don’t really understand and I’m not sure I understand it. It’s kind of a hard thing to describe.
Tweed: In my conversation with Liz Carpenter, we talked about the Texas State Cemetery. She pointed out there were a lot of heroes buried out there. There were a lot of scoundrels buried out there and a bunch of them were in the same hole!
Charlie: Ha Ha. That is very true. That goes back to what I said a while ago. These were humans just like you and I, and they had their frailties, their oddities, their issues, and their demons just like we do; and that to me is why it’s very unfair to judge someone solely on one part of their heritage. You have to take the totality by even someone as great as Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or George Washington, who may be the marble man on the pedestal, but they had their issues; and it doesn’t mean they are less of a great man, it just means the bar is set very high for the rest of us. So I guess what it is, is they are playing the cards they were dealt, the absolutely best way they knew how. You can’t fault anybody for that. You can fault somebody for not getting in the game, or you can fault somebody for just throwing the cards; but if they give it an honest effort and play the cards the best they’re dealt, it’s just very hard to fault somebody for that
Tweed: I have often said one of the beauties of Texas is that if you fall down and fail, no one will hold it against you. All you have to do is get up, dust yourself off, and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Now how do I make it happen?”
Charlie: That is, in my mind, the key. If you fail and you don’t get out and dust yourself off, then you got a problem with folks. But if you get yourself up, climb back up on that horse—give it a good shot again, no one’s going to fault you for that.
Tweed: One thing I have learned is that Texans are “how” thinkers. “If” never enters into the equation
Charlie: Lee Roy Cullen, who was a pillar of Houston economics and business, made and lost I don’t know how many fortunes in the course of a lifetime. He would go down to dead broke and then make it all back and somehow lose it all again and make it all back again. He was the king of getting back up on that horse. People in Texas respect that. They may not think they are people that they absolutely want to imitate, but they will respect it. That is a huge part of the Texas persona—respecting other people, other people’s property, ideas, and things like that.
The Alamo is such a special place, I had the privilege of reading Travis’s letter in the shrine about midnight one Sunday night. It took me a couple of times to get through it. I know how this sounds, but there are still many of those people that are still there. I could feel him standing beside me. It was a very unique and eerie feeling, but it is a very special place. I just wish they had not put it downtown because the parking was a bear. Even Santa Ana had trouble with parking. Ha Ha. It’s not an odd situation.
About preserving the Texas values, I think that is something that’s important. I think it will continue as I see young people coming up all the time who epitomize that. I don’t think that there’s any danger of the Texas character going away. It may manifest itself in different ways from what we’re used to. We have different challenges than we had in 1950 or 1850 for that matter. Really, to tell you the truth, once you get out of the cities, that’s when you start seeing the people who really manifest those characteristics like personal responsibility. If you do something wrong, you stand up and say it—I did something wrong.
I used to worry about our Texas heritage going away. It’s going more and more, and into other things. It can’t help but to do that because technology, increasing population, and people coming in from different areas, from different parts of the world. But I believe if those people give a little thought to the Texas character and what it’s made up of, they’re gonna find out that they share a lot of those same characteristics.
My favorite story along that line was Mirabeau Lamar. He got here two weeks before the battle of San Jacinto. He joined the Texas Army as a private and the day before the battle of San Jacinto he was involved in a cavalry skirmish with the Mexican Army; and he saved a man’s life who had been surrounded by the soldados. Lamar rode in and got them extricated. The next day, Sam Houston made him a colonel, so he went from private to colonel in one day and only being in Texas two weeks. Later on, he was the second president of the Republic of Texas. The moral of the story is, if you come here and you throw in with us we will not only support you, we will promote you; but to use your words, you have to buy in. You have to assimilate. You can’t come here and enjoy the fullness of Texas without taking part. If your home is still someplace else then you’re not going to get the full benefits of everything. The diversity is amazing. I really enjoy the Texas characters. The ones who are just famous or infamous, however you look at it. So I just love them to death. They’re like potato chips—you can’t get enough of them.
One thing, the pendulum always swings and I think that’s another thing that Texas has a tendency to do. They have a tendency to look at the long term, the long game, not just instant gratification. If my family had been interested in instant gratification, they would never come here. Any of them. I had one great, great, great grandmother who gave birth just outside of Galveston Harbor when she was coming from Germany. That’s tough duty you know, particularly back then in the 1840s. There again, you have this genetic memory that’s passed down from generation to generation. And that’s not solely a Texas thing, but it seems like it’s a commonality in Texas more than any place else. You don’t get that same common history out of Indiana, Idaho, or places like that.
We were talking to some folks the other day. 2011 was a horrible year for Texas with the drought. There were people who actually thought it would never rain again (Author’s Note: Kind of like Elmer Kelton’s book The Time It Never Rained.) I lived through that in the 1950s—late 50s. We knew it was going to rain again, but when was the big question. You just hang in there. You just kind of have to roll with the punches in Texas. Just because it’s this way now doesn’t mean it’s gonna be this way tomorrow or the next day or 10 years from now. If you don’t like the way things are, just wait around a couple hours.
Another thing that is characteristic of Texas, is many different ethnicities, and as many different places of origin to the people we have, as many different ideologies, religions, attitudes, [still,] we have always found some way to get along. That doesn’t mean we haven’t had our problems, but we’ve never turned into 1970 Lebanon. We’ve never had a situation where everybody’s just fighting everybody. We’ve always found some way to come to some kind of common ground or accord, which is something you can’t say about every society. So that’s something else. It adds to that Texas pride. We’ve never torn ourselves apart over our differences. I think that’s tremendously important. We sacrifice to get here and everybody did, I guess. That’s one reason why nobody wants to throw it all away.
I think it’s important because of the things that we’ve talked about—it gets passed on to the kids. I just think it’s an important part of life to have the knowledge of where we came from as a people—not only Texas, but America—even people around the world.
We were once our own country and we had whipped the largest military force in North America at the time, but also something else. It figures into that we were on the losing side in the Civil War. We were an occupied country after the Civil War. The federal government took over everything. But as the only state in the Confederacy that had fought in a war against a larger force, [well] that figured into the psychology of losing the Civil War. We had won prior to that and we could use that as some source of pride. The other states of the Confederacy did not have that, so it became very important to Texas, psychologically, to say, “Look at Travis, look at Houston, look at these other people and hold them up as paragons of virtue. They were all six foot four, blonde headed Greek gods. Ha ha. It’s very interesting. The historiography of Texas, that as history changes through the ages and the interpretation of it. Up until [and] after the Civil War, nobody cared about Texas history or the Alamo; nobody cared about San Jacinto. They were too busy surviving and then afterwards [dealing with] Reconstruction. It was very hard to get a foot up on the federal government who wanted to keep the Southern pride down, but then after Reconstruction, you see this blossoming in Texas. (It was Gov.) Colquitt that brought Joanna Troutman from back in Georgia. She never once set foot in Texas. He props her up and brings her to Texas. [Author’s Note: Joanna Troutman is considered the “Betsy Ross of Texas.” She is credited for designing the first Lone Star Flag.]
If you would like to have your own copy of Texas in Her Own Words, Second Edition, go to http://www.TejasPublishing.com. In closing, as Charlie would say, “God & Texas!”