Sam Houston Memorial Museum–1983-85–1 1/2 years–Part-Time Tour Guide.
I entered Sam Houston State University in August 1982. I had tested out of freshman English and history and so entered school with a 4.00 grade point average….My first year was pleasant, my classes were mostly interesting, and I got good grades.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a living. I’d considered architecture, but gave up on that because I didn’t have the math skills. I thought about law school, but realized I didn’t so much want to be a lawyer as I did “Professor Charles W. Kingsfield,” the sour-tempered, intimidating, tweed jacket- and bow-tie wearing law professor John Houseman played on “The Paper Chase.”
My brief success in acting as a senior in high school made me consider majoring in drama, until I found out that students were required to spend a part of each afternoon building and painting sets.
I wound up majoring in history, and then, as I amassed more and more English credits, my minor in English became a second major….
At the beginning of my second year in college my parents decided I needed a job, that it was a scandal, a great moral wrong, for me to merely go to class and “sit on [my] ass” and not actually earn some of my keep. The Sam Houston Memorial Museum on campus was looking for a part-time tour guide, and that seemed an ideal job for me. I interviewed with the Museum’s Director, Dr. Edith Saxton Claggart, and told her how a book of hers had inspired me to get involved in politics. She said I was hired.
I got conflicting reports, but the gist was that my hiring had been put on hold. A friend of my parents worked for the school and I asked him to see what was going on. He told me that the staff of the Museum had filed a complaint about Claggart, saying she had repeatedly treated them with verbal and psychological abuse, and they wanted her fired. Claggart, however, had powerful friends, plus she was a big time feminist, and though all the staff members that had filed the complaint were themselves women, and all the previous directors of the Museum had been women, Claggart claimed the school was trying to fire her because she was a woman and she threatened a sexual discrimination law suit.
Eventually a sort of détente was reached. Claggart was to remain as Director of the Museum, but she was also expected to treat her staff with courtesy. After this agreement was reached, I was told I could start on the job.
The Museum occupied a beautifully landscaped park with a large duck pond, flowers, shade trees, and grassy lawns, on what had once been Sam Houston’s plantation. In those days there were four main buildings on the grounds, though several have been added since then.
Most visitors started their tour at the Main Museum, a red brick neo-classical building that had been constructed for the 1936 Texas Centennial. It consisted of a domed octagonal Rotunda, and exhibition halls to the north, south, and west, Stairs led to the basement, which contained restrooms, offices, a workroom, and storage closets.
The Woodland Home was further down the driveway. It consisted of a central hallway and four rooms downstairs, and a breezeway and two rooms upstairs. There were also two cabins in the yard—a kitchen and Houston’s law office. The Woodland Home offered one tour every hour at the top of the hour.
For years the house had been covered in white clapboard, with a small columned portico out front, and was called “The Mount Vernon of Texas,” but when I was in high school the house was renovated and a controversy arose as to how the house should be appear. One group wanted the exterior left alone. The other thought a more primitive appearance would be more historically accurate. The primitivists won the day, and the portico was replaced with a shed porch and the white clapboard was replaced with rough, unplaned board painted pus yellow.
At the bend of the driveway was a large log building—the Exhibit Hall, which had a gift shop in front and in back a large display of nineteenth century artifacts, almost none of which had any connection to Sam Houston.
The last building was the Steamboat House, where Houston died in 1863. This was a long, narrow structure, with three rooms upstairs and three rooms downstairs. Steep front stairs led up to the second floor parlor and were said to resemble a steamboat gangplank, while the two turrets were supposed to represent smoke stacks. The Steamboat House was open for tours once an hour at the half-hour mark.
Naturally, I was trained to work in all four buildings.
There were four full-time guides—all older women, who had to wear nineteenth-century dresses on special occasions such as Sam Houston’s birthday. Hazel (I forget her real name) was quite old and very sweet. I think she’d worked for the Museum since it opened in 1936. She had no family in Huntsville and her job was her life. She always worked in the Main Museum.
Pat was probably in her fifties and usually worked the Woodland Home. She seemed a bit aloof with me until she realized she was friends with my grandmother’s sister Annie May. Fay was a little older, kind, sweet-natured, positive, and not one to say a bad word about anybody. She usually worked in the Exhibit Hall.
Rose was also probably in her fifties. She was usually at the Steamboat House. She was funny, sarcastic, no-nonsense, and loved to gossip. I probably talked more with her than with anyone else on the staff.
During the week I worked afternoons, which meant I missed out on the big, noisy tours with school kids. On weekends, though, I had to work all day. I had great difficulty reconciling my fondness for late nights with the requirement that I be at the Museum early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Eventually my oversleeping got to be such a problem that Rose would call my dorm room and wake me, so I’d be sure to get to work on time and not get fired.
Dr. Claggart was a real piece of fucking work. The whole establishment rose and fell depending on her moods, which were usually foul. Everyone on the staff, with the possible exception of her Stepford Wife secretary, all waited for that wonderful moment of the day when her green car would tear ass out of the driveway. You could practically hear everyone exhale at once, and feel everyone’s shoulders relax.
Often Claggart would sit glowering in her office, the door open, her eyebrows raised, her lips pursed as if on the verge of uttering a curse. She often looked like she had a bad hangover, though she never really acted drunk. Her hair, which was styled in a huge bouffant, was often disheveled and askew. She liked to brag that she used the same Austin hairstylist as Lady Bird Johnson, though she continued to get the same hairdo that Lady Bird had worn in the Sixties, but had long since retired.
When Claggart was in a decent mood she was given to melodramatic gestures and flamboyant turns of phrase. She once scolded two staffers for, as she put it, “chit-chatting in the foyer.” Rose said Claggart reminded her of Tallulah Bankhead.
Apparently she’d been married at least once. I cannot imagine what that must’ve been like. She had a son who was probably in his early twenties. Of him she was find of saying,
–Well, he may not be athletic, but he can load a dishwasher just like a princess!
Though she was known as an historian, she wasn’t a very good one. Her books were always a mixture of the most overblown purple prose and Seventies feminist drivel. Everything she wrote sounded like the inscription on a Victorian war memorial. I won’t come out and call her a plagiarist, but she wasn’t very good about citing her sources. I could always tell which sources she’d consulted because I knew the originals and how they were worded, and she didn’t make many changes to the order of those words when she’d put them down.
Claggart had a terrible temper and you did not want to be anywhere near her when her mood got ugly. There were often rich and prominent people at our Museum events, and she thought nothing of hissing threats or insults or shrieking orders at staffers, embarrassing everyone within earshot.
Claggart was my first truly tyrannical boss. For years, Claggart was the standard by which I measured bad employers. And while the evidence I’m providing may seem scanty, you’ll just have to take my word on this. After all, these events took place almost thirty years before I sat down to write this book.
At some point, for some twisted reason known only to her, Claggart went on the warpath for Hazel. She began to berate, hound, criticize, and mentally abuse her. She gave her extra tasks that a woman that age probably shouldn’t have been doing. It was clear she was trying to get Hazel to quit. Eventually she broke Hazel’s spirit and Hazel moved around the Main Museum like a frightened ghost. It was disgusting to watch, but none of us said a word about it.
Before long, Hazel’s health failed as well. She had a long stay in the hospital, and then died. Claggart had taken away her will to live. She’d ruined the one thing she had going in her life—her job at the Museum.
Meanwhile, I’d gotten involved in politics. (I find this amusing to recall now. I was such a conservative Republican in those days, and now I’ve turned into a radical leftist.) In high school, my friend Trey Tyler had turned me onto politics and we both decided we were going to become multi-millionaire Republican politicians. He got me somewhat involved in Bill Clements’s gubernatorial and John Connally’s and Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns in 1980. When Willis, the bum-fuck small town where we’d gone to high school decided to have a school rollback election, we were active in the campaign against it. We lost and several teachers, including my mother, lost their jobs.
During the Thanksgiving weekend in 1983, Trey, now known as Bill, who was now attending the University of Texas after dropping out of West Point after one month, took me to the deli of a Conroe supermarket and spent several hours talking to me about politics.
He’d gotten heavily involved in the College Republicans at UT, and the organization, both on the UT and state levels, was beginning to split in two. The previous State President, Gordon Graves, upon leaving office, had backed a puppet successor. But part of the organization opposed Graves, his tactics, and his influence. Bill backed the anti-Graves side, and wanted to build a coalition of chapters in colleges all over Texas that opposed and would unseat Graves’s people.
He also told me about his new hero, the head of the National College Republicans, a brilliant and devious operator named Jack Abramoff, whom he predicted would chart the future of the Republican Party in the United States.
Bill said that I should join the SHSU chapter of the College Republicans, and if one didn’t exist, I should start one and chair it. Then I could get involved in the political intrigues, help unseat the Graves faction, and lay the foundation for my own career and vast fortune.
So I started the College Republicans chapter at SHSU, was easily elected Chairman, and it quickly began to take up all my time. My school work suffered and my job became more an unwanted hindrance than anything. I was named to various boards and steering committees, briefly considered running for Justice of the Peace, served as an Election Judge, and was elected as a Republican Precinct Chairman.
At the College Republican State convention, Gordon Graves had my school’s delegate credential thrown out, so I led a walk-out, and with Bill and others formed the new Texas College Republicans. Jack Abramoff said that the constitution of the national College Republicans did not allow the existence of two College Republican bodies in one state, so he said he’d see which group did the best and most effective work in the 1984 election year, and declare that one the legitimate group.
I was a delegate at the Republican State convention in Fort Worth and attended the Republican National Convention in Dallas where, after Ronald Reagan accepted renomination from his party, I sang “God Bless America” along with Ray Charles, as my left arm rubbed against the right arm of Senator Jesse Helms.
The GOP won a huge landslide that November, nationally, statewide, and locally. I was praised for the part I’d played in the victory. I retired after two terms as Chairman and hoped to savor my success. Jack Abramoff declared the TCRs the legitimate college group in Texas, but the organization didn’t survive the spring thaw. I had ruined my GPA almost beyond repair.
I spent much of 1985 in an anti-social depression. It was, as I termed it at the time, “my grey year.” I now look back a quarter-century later and see what a fascistic and idiotic organization the Republican Party has become, and I wonder what the fuck I was thinking. I look at the permanent damage I did to my college and professional careers and wonder what the fuck I was thinking. I cannot help but believe that in 1984 and 1985 I made decisions from which I may never recover and for which I will be punished the rest of my life. Certainly the last few decades have borne that interpretation out.
I held on at the Museum, just barely. One day I dozed off at the desk in the Rotunda. I was awakened gently by a faint sound, and as I came to I realized it was a group of dozens of Asian tourists, quietly giggling at me.
I had, on the other hand, mastered the art of sleeping at the Woodland Home and the Steamboat House, either on the floor or on one of Sam Houston’s surprisingly comfortable couches. (I had the sense not to bother with the feather beds, as they would’ve been too hard to get in and out of and re-make.)
At the Steamboat House I often slept on the floor of the tiny office that was located in one of the turrets off the second-floor parlor. The office had one window, with a pair of shutters closed over it. Between the shutters and the glass windows panes was a huge hornet’s nest. I trained myself to sleep exactly fifty minutes, waking up without an alarm around twenty-five minutes after the hour. This was right around the time visitors finished looking at the Woodland Home and sauntered over to the Steamboat House. I’d raise up on my knees, and rap my knuckles against the glass, and this would anger the hornets. The tourists would start climbing the front stairs, would get about halfway up, see the hornets, decided not to chance it, and would go away. As soon as I saw they’d left, I’d go back to sleep for another fifty minutes.
At some point we all learned that Claggart was leaving a few months down the line. And so she started to work on her legacy. She had displays that had been loved by visitors for decades taken down and replaced. She hired an Assistant Director, an Education Director, another full-time tour guide, and I think also a Conservator.
The Assistant Director was Mexican by birth, American by citizenship, and had spent the previous thirty years stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany. His young children were, therefore, culturally German. I remember the day he got called to the local junior high school Principal’s office for a parent/teacher conference. It seems his son was in the habit of farting constantly in class, which annoyed the teacher and put the other kids into an uproar. The Assistant Director was put in the awkward position of explaining that in Germany flatulence is no big deal, and that farting is not considered rude or disruptive.
Since the Assistant Director was a military man, he took an immediate dislike to me and my undisciplined ways. I could tell he was watching me, biding his time.
He often bustled around from one building to the next, in the company of the Conservator and two young assistants, all clad in white lab coats and linen gloves, examining our furniture and artifacts as if they were of the greatest rarity. According to Pat, one of the previous directors, who was a bad drunk, but a good historian, hauled all the furniture out of both of the houses, set them out onto the grass, stripped the finish off each piece with varnish, then had them all re-varnished and re-upholstered. The “patina of age” on our pieces was not more than a few years old.
The new tour guide, Dick Mills, was a forty-something Yankee from Illinois, with a Ph. D. in history. He’d spent all his career working as a tour guide in various properties associated with Abraham Lincoln, including Lincoln’s home in Springfield. Claggart assigned him the task of updating the Houston family genealogy, which was ten to twenty years out of date at that point.
Dick knew nothing about the Houston family. I had made it a point of committing the family tree to memory and looking up corrections on my own, long before he was ever hired. And while he indicated that he appreciated my input, he wasn’t allowed to use my help, because I was a student and an undergraduate, and Claggart seemed to think someone in that state incapable of gathering and learning facts. To this day the genealogy posted on the Museum website is still incomplete and incorrect.
Sometimes the tourists were just huge pains in the ass. One day a skinny, grinning, middle-aged man from Oklahoma walked into the Rotunda with his wife. He was carrying a high school yearbook from the 1940s, and opening up the book to a certain page, proudly announced that he had attended high school with Richard “Dickie” Houston, Sam Houston’s great-grandson. He acted as if he wanted us to give him a medal for this feat. He showed us Dickie’s picture, then held it up alongside a portrait of General Sam, commenting on the family resemblance.
Something clicked in my head and I became troubled. Ordinarily I had all the facts of the Houston family genealogy on the tip of my tongue, though I seldom had cause to use them. I realized there was something I was forgetting about Dickie, and it was going to drive me crazy until I figured out what exactly it was. I didn’t like having gaps in my mental data bank.
Dick Mills talked with the guy, as he spun stories about his childhood and adolescence and his rather tenuous connection to history.
I slipped downstairs and dug around in a filing cabinet until I found the answers I was looking for. I went back upstairs with a piece of paper in my hand, walked into the Rotunda, and started reading aloud, interrupting the conversation:
–It says here, “Richard ‘Dickie’ Houston, adopted son of Richard Cross Houston and Elizabeth Rhea Richardson Houston….”–so much for the family resemblance–… “born 1931, married 1952, Mary L. Hamilton….”
–Oh, that sounds just like Dickie. He had such a way with the ladies.
–“Three children, Danny, Sherry, and Mark….”
–Oh, I bet he’s a fine father!
–Ah, this is what I was trying to remember about him: “Died 1975.”
–Yes, I’m afraid so.
–That can’t be.
And he stumbled out of the Rotunda and down the stairs, slumped against his wife.
About an hour later Rose called me from the Exhibit Hall to find out how much we’d collected in donations at the Main Museum. The first words out of her mouth were
–Who the hell is Dickie Houston? There was some man that showed up at the Steamboat House about an hour ago, practically in tears, moaning, “Dickie is dead! Dickie is dead! I can’t believe that Dickie Houston is dead!”
For each building the guides had memorized speeches explaining the exhibits and the key events of Houston’s life. Between the speeches and the labels on the exhibits most tourists learned all they cared to know about Houston. Few bothered to ask detailed questions.
Occasionally, though, I made variations to the speeches. I wasn’t above manipulating the visitors for my own amusement. When I gave tours of the Steamboat House we always ended in the death chamber and I’d always point and say
–And Sam Houston died on an Army cot on THAT VERY SPOT.
And I’d watch the visitors step backwards in fear.
Or if the visitors seemed a squeamish lot, I’d explain to them how Santa Anna’s silver soup tureen was originally a chamber pot that somewhere along the line gained an extra handle. Or I’d speculate that Sam Houston’s first wife left him because he liked to sit around the house in the nude and had a body covered with oozing, unhealed battle wounds.
In the spring of 1985 we learned the guests of honor at the Sam Houston birthday celebration would be former Texas Governor and Mrs. Price Daniel. This was especially appropriate since Mrs. Daniel was a Houston descendant. I mentioned this to my grandfather and learned that he and the governor had been friends, so he told me to pass along his greetings.
The big day arrived. The ladies were dressed in nineteenth century dresses, the men in twentieth century suits. A small reception line of staffers gathered in the entrance hall of the Woodland Home. The VIPs arrived, escorted by the Museum brass. Mrs. Daniel looked regal. Governor Daniel no longer cut the impressive figure he had in his heyday. He looked like a tired old man who’d been stuffed into his Sunday suit and dragged unwillingly to a boring event by his wife.
Nobody said anything, so I stepped forward, thrust out my hand, and spoke:
–Governor Daniel, my name’s J___ B___. I’m the grandson of J___ and T___ S____, and he asked me if you remembered the old days in Liberty when you and him and Raleigh Livingston used to play dominoes.
The old man brightened and straightened up.
–J___ S___?! Why sure I do! Is she still living?
–Yes he is, and doing quite well. My grandmother passed away in 1976, but he’s doing fine.
–Well, that’s wonderful news. Those were great times! I sure do remember them. Please tell him I said hello!
I looked around the room and everyone was staring at me, in complete shock that I had such important connections.
All in all, I stayed at the Museum a year-and-a-half. I really don’t remember the day Claggart left. She was succeeded by the Assistant Director. The Spring semester of 1985 ended and I went to spend the next two or three weeks before the start of the first summer session at my grandfather’s place in Conroe.
Then one day I got a call from the new Director. He said he’d just interviewed a student for a tour guide position. The young man said he could start at a certain date. If I could not return to work by that date he would give my job to him. I said the dorms wouldn’t open until a week after the date mentioned—there was no way I could report to work then as I’d have no place to live. He said he’d call me back the following day with his decision. Not surprisingly, when he did call back he confirmed that he had indeed given away my job. It was strange—to fire me without exactly firing me. In fact, on my resume for years thereafter I wrote that I had resigned from that job.
The Museum was always one of my landmark jobs, so to speak, because as I said earlier, Dr. Claggart was my first evil boss. I didn’t count the dumb blonde at Concord—she was too busy getting her ass pinched to cause me much trouble. But Claggart hung over everything like a dark cloud, infecting everything she touched. I didn’t think I’d ever have a boss that bad again, but man, was I proven wrong.
I suppose that up to that point I expected that all supervisors acted with a measure of civility and professionalism in the workplace, treating their employees perhaps not as equals, but at least as fellow human beings. I had never imagined that there could be a work setting where the boss screamed at and insulted the staff, nor could I imagine employees that would put up with that kind of treatment.
A few years ago I did a Google search to see what Dr. Claggart was up to. It turns out not much—she’d died in 2004. I felt the same tiny flash of victory and enjoyment I always feel when I learn an enemy of mine has died. But there was a time that news would’ve caused me to pump the air with my fists and let out a yell.
Edith Saxton Claggart was a rotten human being, an embarrassing bore at her best, an evil, demented hell beast at her worst. In short, she was a bitch of the first water, cruel for no cause, vulgar for no reason. The world is a finer, richer place for her leaving it, and I for one am glad that there is now six feet of worm-filled Texas sod separating her vile mouth from the rest of us.