Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Uncle Hardy, Big Tex, and Santa Claus

In Texas, September is still summer time; school starts, harvest begins, but asphalt in the cracks of Main Street still oozes and melts like bubble gum in the broiling noonday sun. But with October comes crisp autumn evenings, a huge pumpkin-orange harvest moon hangs low in the sky, and the State Fair begins. Pigs, horses, cows and rabbits vie for attention in the Livestock Building; jams and jellies jostle against prized quilts in the Women's Building; the lights of the Ferris Wheel spin dizzyingly; the sweet smell of cotton candy hangs heavily in the air. Looming above it all is a gigantic figure, one hand lifted shoulder-high in greeting, the other arm outflung as if to embrace all of Texas, stands Big Tex, the cowboy who symbolizes the biggest annual fair in the world. He has been standing there all my life. He seems to have been standing there forever.

As a little girl I was fascinated by Big Tex. He was both the first and last sight I wanted to see. Riding on Daddy's shoulder, firmly gripping a handful of his hair or Mama's finger for safety, I stared at the carefully detailed boots, comparing them point by point to those my father wore. Then my gaze moved up, up, past the long legs encased in blue denim, past the red and blue checked western shirt, to the face shaded by the big-brimmed hat. What would I find there? Would it be the affectionate twinkle that invites a little girl to snuggle in uncle's arms? Or the stern stare that nails a small sinner to the floor, awash in guilt for cookies stolen from Aunt Hazel's kitchen, apple cores thrown at the old sow, dirty footprints tracked across a clean floor? When one of my friends told me in breathless secrecy that she knew where babies came from, I said with infinite scorn, "Shoot, that's nothing - I know where Big Tex came from!"

He first say the light of day in the small town of Kerens, in Navarro County, over 50 years ago. As in many small towns, the people there go all out to decorate at Christmastime - not only their homes and businesses, but the town square as well. That year my uncle Hardy was not only the county surveyor, but also the model for the giant figure that would be the centerpiece of the holiday festivities. Tall, broad-shouldered and muscular, he was a fine figure of a man, and his measurements multiplied by seven became the measurements of the colossus. Back then, the cowboy's uplifted hand held a bag of gifts, and his bold features were almost hidden under a flowing beard made of ravelled cotton rope. Instead of a broad-brimmed Stetson, he wore a red cap trimmed with white, and he was known as Santy---Santy Claus.

After the celebration, this giant figure built of oil field pipe became a storage problem, which the townspeople solved by offering him to the State Fair. The company that makes Lee jeans offered to dress him as a cowboy, and Uncle Hardy helped dismantle him for his journey to Dallas.

I have never visited Uncle Hardy's house without thinking of Big Tex, and I never visit the fair without going to see my old friend, who is after all practically a member of the family. There is usually a daddy with a small child on his shoulders staring round-eyed at those enormous boots. Sometimes a tiny voice whispers, "Mama, where did he come from?" And I tell once more the story of Uncle Hardy and the Santa Claus who became Big Tex.