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Get Lit: More Houston History in Handy Book Form

Judging by the table of contents, Dr. S. O. Young’s True Stories of Old Houston and Houstonians, a 1913 work that’s being reissued*, is pretty juicy. Sections include “Some Characters and Their Misadventures,” “Politics, Gambling and Other Sordid Miscellany,” “Wine, Women and Song,” and “Critters (Natural and Supernatural).” The book is a collection of yarns Young wrote for the old Chronicle almost a century ago.

In one, newspaperman Mike Connoly, who’s boarding with another (very jealous) man and his wife, flees the house after being accused of trifling with the woman, who, the author says, is “as ugly as a brush fence.” Wearing only “a thin summer undershirt that reached scarcely to his hips,” the man creeps along the bayou until he convinces a building operator to lend him the clothes off his back while he finds others. Connoly gets drunk and forgets to return with the clothes until the next afternoon, when he finds the “half crazy operator, two-thirds suffocated, hiding himself in the battery room.”

The book is filled with stories like this, which sound like they were told in the barroom. Most would probably be funnier – and more believable -- if you heard them after a whisky or three, but they’re still a window into a Houston that’s all but lost. It’s notable that the butt of the joke is often a “negro” – getting fooled by Indians, held at gunpoint by a man who loves horses but hates negroes, falling from the rafters at the theater. Young clearly holds contempt for the “negro,” yet at one point, he searches for the grave of one who died during a steamboat crash on the bayou after saving the lives of several others.

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Given the hideous state of the bayou today, it’s painful to read Young’s fond recollections of it. In his lifetime he has watched the bayou go from clear swimming and fishing hole to toxic gunk. “Looking at the dirty, grease-covered bayou of today, one would never think that at one time it was one of the prettiest streams in Texas,” he writes, “that its water was clean and limpid, covered with water lilies and filled with fish and crabs, and that its banks were grassy and overgrown with wildflowers.” For shame.

But back to Scott and his yarns – a famous one concerns himself, and you can bet it was told in many a bar. The introduction mentions that some readers might recognize Scott from Erik Larson’s Isaac Storm, an account of the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Apparently, “Dr. Young was determined to ride out the storm in his home. The storm destroyed the house sending him surfing across the island on his front door.” – Cathy Matusow

*The book is being reissued by Copano Bay Press in a set along with A Thumbnail History of The City of Houston, Texas. There will only be 500 numbered copies, and the price is (gasp) $124.95; see www.booksontexas.com. Hopefully the library will pick one up.

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