I spent a good portion of my childhood years staring out the window from the back seat of an Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser station wagon. There was a more or less permanent nose, finger, tongue, candy and dirt smear that extended from the black rubber weather seal to approximately 4 inches from the window’s top edge. Through this hazy portal, I gazed out upon the landscape of Texas as my father indulged his dual desires for family outings and really good food—the kind that only existed in the most unlikely and unsanitary spots imaginable, or at Dairy Queen.
Regardless of where we were going, a great deal of time was spent simply driving around in the middle of nowhere with my mother noting that we might be lost and my father asking us all, earnestly, where our sense of adventure was to be found.
During these tours, I noticed that pretty much every car we saw on those two-lane ribbons had a waving person driving it. I don’t mean to insinuate that they were sticking their hand out the window and making like Miss America. Most of these folks just lifted a single digit straight up off the steering wheel and gave a very slight nod of the head. Some gave a full-on “howdy” wave with a sideways twist of the wrist.
I vividly recall passing a rancher in a rusty truck sticking his whole upper torso out of the driver’s side window and thrusting his arm up and down while he let out a huge “Whoop!” In retrospect I think he probably thought we were people he knew, but then we were only about 5 miles from Luckenbach, where “Everybody is somebody,” as they say. At any rate, all of us in the car waved back.
I’ve even found this custom in other states, though it turned out the waving parties were both Texan. My wife and I were taking a trip through Colorado one November several years ago and were being passed from the left on a two-lane mountain road. The driver waved as he went by, friendly as can be, but then the passengers started making less affable gestures, having spotted my burnt orange shirt and hat. It was, after all, game day, and these fellows apparently hailed from College Station. Ah well, at least we’d all acknowledged each other.
In recent years, I have cruised down many of these same roads and have gotten nary a blink from most drivers as they bear down on my left side despite repeated attempts at engaging their attention. I get a little downhearted by the lack of camaraderie on their part, but make up for it with celebration when I do get a wave. Needless to say, my wife thinks I am crazy.
There was an article in The Washington Post some time ago about the effect of the president’s ranch in Crawford on the locals. The biggest complaint folks had was that the Secret Service wouldn’t wave back. Surely if the guys in black get briefed on protocol to go to, say, China, they should have been given instruction on the cultural niceties of Texas’ back roads.
I sometimes think that, perhaps, we have lost a little bit of friendliness that used to be a big part of being a Texan. But maybe I’m the one who has changed. It is probably revisionist remembering on my part—a nostalgic illusion that made me think that if people were passing you in a car and didn’t know you from Adam, they were going to assume that you were nice enough to wave to … and it didn’t cost anything anyway.
So why is it different now? We have been politicizing, categorizing, polarizing and dehumanizing each other quite a bit lately. Don’t get me wrong, we have done these things forever, but the intensity seems to have really spiked. By simple logic, it is easy to assume that any other person is in the enemy camp on some issue. That means that the person ambling towards you on RR 1323 is probably a conservatively liberal anti-pro-tax-prohibitionist and an enviro-destructivist and is not going to get a wave out of you! And they probably don’t like enchiladas either!
Another possibility, and one that chills me, is that we have simply stopped registering each others’ existence. Ambivalence has seeped so deeply into us that we don’t even see the kid with his face pressed against the glass, and he never gets to wave back.
I still live in Texas, and I believe that we continue to be a pretty friendly bunch. I think we might have just forgotten how to show that friendliness to complete strangers. We don’t need to hug everybody or get mushy to affirm our good hearts. I propose that we simply try to recapture the ability to assume that most people are pretty alright. Chances are we’ll be right most of the time.
Assumptions like that tend to lead to some of the finer things in life like handshakes, conversations, friendships and barbecues. Further, I propose that when driving down a road with two lanes, we lift a finger and give a little nod. Someday, I hope to see an urbanite from Austin knock over his soy latté in his exuberance to wave at some good ol’ boy who almost loses his gimme cap in his eagerness to wave back as the Prius passes the F250 between Mason and Fredonia. After all, there may be a lot of things that separate us from each other, but being Texans should be one heck of a unifying force.
David Oelrich, who makes a fine smoked brisket and an even better rack of ribs, is married to Shannon Oelrich, Texas Co-op Power’s food editor.