If you have ever spent a summer evening sitting on a porch in one of the most out-of-the way parts of Texas drinking beer and swapping tales with the locals, you’ll feel right at home with Blair Pittman’s Tales from the Terlingua Porch. If that scenario appeals to you, this collection of short stories in folklore or story-teller form will make you chuckle. It may even cause you to remember characters you have encountered in similar environments.
The book is a compendium of short humorous stories of experiences one might expect to have in that dry, distant part of Texas. Most of the vignettes are written in first person, as experienced by the author or as shared with the author from a friend or acquaintance. Many of the stories were told in first person by well-known folks who left an imprint on the history of the region. Dr. Ross Maxwell, the first Superintendent of Big Bend National Park, contributed a humorous story about Etta Koch, one of the first teachers in the small, rural school in Big Bend and her first encounter with a pack of mountain lions blocking the road into the park. Bill Ivey, son of Rex Ivey, who was the original developer and owner of Lajitas, offered the story of how his father bought Terlingua twice, once to salvage the lumber, wiring, and tools from the abandoned quicksilver mines, the second time to salvage the town. If you read that chapter, you’ll learn business transactions in Big Bend are not always handled the same as in a city.
The consistent theme of the short stories focuses on the assortment of people, some relatively normal and others downright eccentric, who frequent the social center of the area, the Terlingua Store porch. Most of the tales are about events that happened on the west side of Big Bend National Park, but they are all stories a listener might hear while sitting on the porch in rural America watching a sunset and enjoying the company of friends and strangers.
Although the narrative and dialogue are folksy, the stories are well written, much as a reader would expect from a lifelong journalist such as Pittman. One of the most enticing elements of the book is it treats the characters and storytellers with dignity and understanding. Pittman avoided the trap of writing in colloquial dialect which can interfere with the style storytellers affect. In other words, Pittman makes the stories about the characters and their lives rather than attempting at humorous language. Mark Kneeskern’s rustic, captivating illustrations accompany the stories.
I truly enjoyed Blair Pittman’s collection of stories. I grew up in that part of the world and encountered the same types of unconventional folks he writes about. That’s not to say a reader who hasn’t experienced stories swapped over a beer on a store porch won’t “get” the rich experiences Pittman wrote about; in fact, if you have a bent for odd and out-of-the-way experiences, this book might inspire you to pack up and stay there awhile.
If you read and enjoy Pittman’s stories, I recommend three other books about the Big Bend region, all by female authors who lived in the area. Each book brings a slightly different and uniquely female perspective to life in this ruggedly beautiful land.
Clothier, Patricia Wilson. Beneath the Window: Early Ranch Life in the Big Bend before it was a Park. Iron Mountain Press, Houston, TX, 2016
Henderson, Aileen Kilgore., Tenderfoot Teacher: Letters from the Big Bend, 1952-1954. TCU Press, Ft. Worth, TX, 2002
Koch, Etta and June Cooper Price. Lizards on the Mantel and Burros at the Door: A Big Bend Memoir. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, 1999.
Note: Tales from the Porch can be found online but is much more affordable at Front Street Books in Alpine.