If I were Houston, I’d slap somebody’s face

A couple of weekends ago I stood in our city library await ing a spea ker for Rockdale’s annual Tejas Fest.

There was an exhibit of Texas literature on free-standing, museum style placards and I moved from author to author reading the quotes.

Until one caught my eye:

Houston has no zoning laws. The supreme authority is money. It is the impetus for the manic growth so uncontrolled and uninhibited that it approaches the obscene. The city lies open like a promiscuous and greedy woman who gives herself with abandon to anyone who can afford her and wanted her. Many can and do.

Uh, could you run that by me again? Houston is like what?

Granted, this was from a mystery story, not a book of sociology, history or economics. And mysteries of a certain kind tend to have prose more purple than a TCU uniform.

But still, think about it. Someone selected that as a pull-out quote as an example of the best of Texas writing. It was displayed alongside greats like J. Frank Dobie, Horton Foote and Larry McMurtry.

It, as they say in (non-promiscuous and non-greedy) East Texas, “just hit me wrong.”

It didn’t help that, a couple of days previously, I’d seen Houston’s lack of zoning laws held up as a monument to Texas’ individuality and quirkiness, a sort of in-your face “yeah, take that” to the rest of municipal America.

(Full disclosure: I was born in the Houston metro area. I like Houston.)

I quickly forgot the quote but then remembered it again when the speaker arrived and began.

He was Fred Burton, also a writer, but a whole world away from smarmy, show-off prose.

Fred helped bring the perpetrator of the first World Trade Center bombing to justice, helped to free hostages, fought corruption in drug-besotted borderlands.

Fred was the first—and hopefully last—Tejas Fest author to have ever been on an Al Queda hit list. He’s still on some drug gang hit lists. In his kind of business you deal with the world as you find it and don’t a spend a lot of time stretching metaphors to the breaking point.

You encounter too many real breaking points.

Fred was a breath of fresh, if chilling, air. His words were not reassuring but sometimes a good hard slap-in-the-face with the truth is about the best thing that could happen to us.

He doesn’t see our drug problems getting better. He doesn’t see any real national will to even consider fixing border security.

Even his good news was viewed through a prism of reality. Sure, there hasn’t been another 9-11 in a decade but that’s a function of good work by people like Fred and the realization by terrorist groups that they’d be wasting their resources if they committed to anything less than some act which would do real, lasting harm to our country.

Like what? There are places in Texas where a few acts of terror could raise the price of gasoline two dollars overnight. That would obviously be a major blow.

Where? Ironically, Houston. I don’t recall Fred describing Texas’ largest city in images so lurid you’d think it was a promo for a cable television show.

Well, it’s nice that people write cool mystery fiction, and can turn a phrase. Houston is certainly not going to fight back.

I prefer reality. Fred knows full well what a treacherous, deceitful, thankless and depressing job he did. He wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. You won’t see him touting spy fringe benefits at some job fair.

But if people like Fred didn’t do, it who would?

Thank God for Fred, and all the Freds we’ll never know, out there right now, protecting us.

Even Houston.

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2012-03-15 digital edition

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