“For 20 points. 1,000–1,200 words. Choose two pictures. One should illustrate the history of Texans relating to their land. The other should look to the future to address challenges facing the state and its land. Explain where the pictures came from and why you think they are good illustrations of the past and future of our relation to the land. Due Saturday, May 13, at 7 p.m.”
Such were the guidelines given to us by Dr. Ken Baake, associate professor of technical communication and rhetoric at Texas Tech University. The class? HONS 3301-H05: Booms, Busts, and Dust: Writings about Texans and their Land—a delightfully eclectic course offered annually by the Texas Tech Honors College. The assignment? Our final essay, worth 20 percent of the overall course grade.
Faced with a cumulative GPA at Tech that was tantalizingly close to the summa cum laude benchmark of 3.9, I was determined to finish my final semester strong and do well on this essay. And though I am by no means a professional photographer, two photographs came to mind almost immediately as I ruminated over this peculiar assignment. The two photos excellently matched Dr. Baake’s parameters. Even better, they were private photos privy to our family. The first was a family keepsake hanging on my bedroom wall. The second was stored on the memory card of my Canon DSLR. I was sure Dr. Baake would enjoy them. And so I set to work.
The following is an excerpt from the resulting essay.
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Lubbock Motorcycle Club, 1929
The first picture—captioned “Lubbock Motorcycle Club, 1929. Photo by Brown, Lubbock, Tex.”—shows 16 young men, members of the Lubbock Motorcycle Club, posed on their motorcycles, ready to roll. Notice the building in the background. It is the Texas Tech Administration Building, just five years old at the time. (This picture was taken some 20 years before two north-south wings were added to the building.) “Brown” evidently used a fisheye camera lens when taking this picture. As a result, the boxy Administration Building appears to be curved and the bikers’ formation appears to be a straight line (notice, however, the shadow angles cast by the motorcyclists). The young men are facing south, positioned somewhere near where the Preston Smith statue and iconic Double T Bench stand on campus today. (The bench was erected just two years after this picture was taken.)
This picture not only has historical value, but it also is meaningful to me personally, because my great-grandpa—Vernon Lawrence Haley—is the fifth motorcyclist from the left (see inset). He would have been about 19 years old at the time. The fact that I went to school on the same campus where, 87 years ago, my great-grandpa once posed for a picture, is surreal.
How does this picture illustrate the way Texans relate to their land? Let’s take a closer look. First, notice the bleak appearance of the surrounding landscape (enhanced by the sepia tone of the image). There are no large, shade-giving trees in sight. The ground appears brown and dusty. The sun is harshly shining into the motorcyclists’ eyes. To the left of the Administration Building is what appears to be an open field—no Chemistry Building, no bus stops, no major developments. These bleak surroundings evidence the unforgiving nature and sparse landscape of the Lubbock area at the time. Plus, National Weather Service records show that the late 1920s was a relatively dry spell, with less than 10 inches of rain falling in 1927 and less than 20 inches in both 1928 and 1929. Not to mention the hellish Dust Bowl that would ravage the southern plains just a few years later. Yet, despite the dryness, despite the bleak landscape, despite the undeveloped area, these young bikers appear to be having a great time. They appear confident, determined, and, well, happy. In class, we repeatedly discussed the incredible love of and admiration for the automobile during the early 1900s, and I suppose this applies to motorcycles as well.
We also discussed the importance of family heritage and how who we are today is largely a reflection of those who have gone before us. As Dr. Baake mentioned on our last day of class on May 10, we are part of a “fabric of consciousness woven together” with our ancestors. I agree. Even though I never met great-grandpa Vernon, and even though my knowledge of his life is spotty at best, the decisions of that young man perched on that motorcycle 87 years ago affect who I am today. Much has changed since 1929. Tech’s enrollment has grown from 2,000 to 35,000. Lubbock’s population has swelled from 20,000 to 245,000. The city appears to be a drastically different place than it was nearly nine decades ago. But so much remains the same. The fact that the Texas Tech Administration Building still stands today, and the fact that I was very recently a student at the same school where my great grandpa posed for that picture all those years ago, remind me of history’s ongoing, inescapable, unerasable influence.
Wind turbines near Vega, 2015
This second picture is one I took on November 25, 2015, during a Lubbock-to-Denver United Airlines flight. We Haleys were on our way to Tucson for a Thanksgiving family reunion (with a layover in Denver). About 40 minutes into our flight, as the jet was soaring to the north-northwest toward Colorado, I glanced out the window and noticed rows and rows of seemingly tiny wind turbines dotting the plains far below. Grabbing my camera, I snapped several pictures of them. The one I’ve included in this essay is the most scenic of those shots. Until the writing of this paper, I never attempted to pinpoint the location of those turbines; however, after scouring satellite imagery on Google Maps, I managed to locate them. Turns out, the turbines in this picture are near Vega, a town of 900 about 30 miles west of Amarillo. The jagged gullies carved into the otherwise flat plains are part of the Canadian River basin, not too far from Lake Meredith.
How does this picture relate to the future of Texas and invite us to consider the challenges we face? Let’s tackle the second part of the question first. This picture illustrates a couple noteworthy challenges. First, notice that there is no water visible in the picture. Second, notice that, as in the first picture, the land is remarkably sparse and rugged-looking. And yet, despite the lack of water and the land’s toughness, farmland is visible in the picture, especially in the left half of the photo. The lack of water does not deter Texas farmers from growing crops in this area.
The wind turbines, of course, are where the future of Texas comes in. Texans are vigorously investing in renewable energy these days. In fact, over 10,000 wind turbines now generate electricity across Texas, leading the American Wind Energy Association to describe our state as “a national leader in the wind energy industry.” We are by far the top wind power state, producing nearly 36 million megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity in 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (Iowa is a distant second, generating 15 million MWh in the same year.) Clearly, we Texans strive to make the most of the 170 million acres within our sprawling borders.
Remembering the past, anticipating the future
Once again, I am by no means a photography expert, but I do enjoy considering these two pictures. One elicits speculations about the past, the other elicits speculations about the future. One reminds me of my ancestors’ experiences with the land of Texas, the other invites us to contemplate what the future may hold and how we as Texans may be faithful stewards of this great land we enjoy. Although our land is beautiful and expansive and brimming with potential, there are real, sobering challenges. To address these challenges, we will need much more than motorcycles and wind turbines. We will need more than essays and intriguing photographs. We will need educated, reasonable, level-headed Texans who recognize the lessons history teaches us and who have the necessary foresight to make decisions today that we will not regret tomorrow.
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And with that, my HONS 3301-H05 essay concluded. After vigorous proof-reading and editing, I saved the finished paper as a PDF and uploaded it to Blackboard on May 13 at 9:46 in the morning. Dr. Baake’s feedback came two days later.
“Great essay, Garrett,” he wrote on May 15. “You could probably publish this somewhere with the pictures. I’d say write to Texas Monthly. Can’t hurt to try.
On May 20, 2016, Garrett Haley graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Technical Communication from Texas Tech University.