I began my college teaching career at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Sam Houston is not the most noted state institution in that East Texas town. Seven state prisons ring the town.
Every morning a loud siren would sound near an imposing brick walled structure near the center of the town. This first siren call indicated that the morning prisoner count had commenced. If they found everybody, a similar call would issue in the early afternoon. Sometimes the afternoon claxon would be mute.
My boss, the late band composer Fisher Tull, asked if I was interested in a college job during our mutual stint at The University of Georgia Summer Music Workshop. Upon finishing that teaching gig, I traveled to St. Louis where I spent the rest of the summer singing and acting. Dr. Tull’s offer sounded good to me, so I replied in the affirmative.
Initially I sought a real Texas experience. This seeking was based on the cowboy culture. For some reason I made a disconnect with the green hills of east Texas and the Hollywood images of west Texas. Other than cowboy hats and boots, the most western image in the Sam Houston State area was a forlorn longhorn steer that commanded a large pasture near the interstate.
Huntsville, Texas, is also the home to the famous Texas Prison Rodeo. Inmates with little or nothing to lose throw their bodies against huge bucking steers and rip-snorting broncos. To me it feels a little like ancient Rome, and not in a good way.
At Sam Houston I encountered my first cadre of private voice students. I’m not sure who taught whom.
There was Henry, a strapping young gentleman of Latino descent, who possessed a fine baritone voice.
At his first lesson I informed him that we would begin by singing a five-note scale in a major key. I played the five notes, looked up at Henry, and said, “now you.”
He opened his mouth and I stared in wonder. Henry’s creamy baritone voice flowed like honey. His pitch was perfect, and there was a tender pathos in his delivery.
I could scarcely contain my enthusiasm. In my mind I saw this fine lad singing in the Metropolitan Opera finals with me, his proud teacher, beaming from the loge.
I turned back from Henry and played an identical five-note scale, only this time raised by one half step.
I turned to Henry.
He panicked. He shifted from one foot to the other. He shook his head from side to side.
“What’s wrong, Henry?” I asked.
Henry looked down at the piano keys.
“I don’t believe I know that one.”
Dr. Fisher Tull was a wonderful department chair. He hosted dinners accompanied by his sparkling wit. He composed a piece entitled, “Tripod.”
You see at that time, Sam Houston State had a campus dog. The dog had, wait for it … only three legs. “Tripod” is a delightful musical work.
Many Texas towns, both east and west, boast a centrally located town café, and indeed, Huntsville had its Cattleman Restaurant.
Three words: Chicken Fried Steak.
Oh the crisp golden brown crust and tender beef loin backed into a mound of buttery mashed potatoes. Sweet tea worthy of a Rome, Georgia, grandmother sweating at the side of the plate was at hand.
Nestled on top of the gravy covered chicken fried steak was a noble jalapeno pepper.
My first visit to the Cattleman ended suddenly as I, the Texas innocent, took that succulent jalapeno and bit in with anticipation.
I was in Texas!
I think the pain started somewhere above my upper jaw line and then raced over the crown of my head to the other side. My throat was aflame. My tongue was scorched.
I grabbed the glass of tea and drank deeply.
A lunch companion suggested I eat some bread, and that helped, but only a bit.
Upon my next visit to the Cattleman Restaurant, I gingerly removed the outlaw jalapeno to a napkin near my plate. I was never tempted again.
One of the current catch phrases goes, “Texas, A whole ’nother country.”
I agree, but it ain’t New Mexico.