toads were a part of just about every Texas boy's life until the
spiky little reptiles began to disappear from the eastern and central
parts of the state.
Now a threatened species, the horned toad -- technically a lizard
-- is generally found only in far West Texas, and some parts of
South Texas, including
a semi-isolated colony in Karnes County. (Assuming they didn't get
mashed by all the heavy trucks traversing the landscape at the height
of the late, great fracking boom.)
Even when Comanches
still posed a threat along the frontier, boys liked to chase, capture
and play with horned toads. Some kids kept them as pets, others
made an unfortunate if not-un-boy-like game of killing them. For
many male-born Baby Boomers like me, the little critters made excellent
running targets if encountered when we were out stalking the neighborhood
with our spring-powered BB guns.
But I may be the only Texas Boomer who can thank a horned toad for
the role it played in getting me out of junior high school P.E.
Well, at least for a few weeks.
"Physical education has never been a particularly favorite subject
of mine," I wrote at the beginning of an English class essay during
my senior year of high school (1967). Next I invoked the old cliché
that there are only two things a person can't avoid -- death and
taxes. I then went on to maintain there's a third inescapable thing,
In the early 1960s, educators had not yet invented the term "middle
school." We stayed in elementary school through the sixth grade.
The following year, we began what was then known as junior high
school. That lasted until we reached the 10th grade, when we finally
made it to high school.
Through elementary school, our school day included a break called
"recess" or "play period." During that time, our homeroom teacher
kept us active by getting us to run, play softball or hurl volleyballs
at each other in a sadistic game called "Dodge Ball." Starting in
the seventh grade, however, we had formalized physical education.
That involved "suiting out" in gym clothes and then doing calisthenics
followed by some form of physical exertion for the rest of the period,
be it running the track or playing touch-football or softball. After
about 45 minutes, at the coach's whistle, we had to sprint in, shower,
and change back into our school clothes for the next class.
"I'm not a particularly lazy person," I wrote in that long-ago four-page
essay, "but the thought of suiting out in P.E. and exerting myself
to a hearty perspiration revolted me." (In retrospect, "revolted"
is a pretty strong word, but I sure didn't like P.E.) "So, being
an impudent lad, I steadfastly refused to do so, regardless of the
possible scholastic or other consequences [read bending over and
taking one or several "licks" from the coach's paddle.]"
Luckily, I had an understanding coach who clearly realized I was
no future Olympian. I was a bookish, chubby kid and got a lot of
what would now be called bullying over it. Rather than force me
to work out, Coach Charles Goren (a former University of Texas baseball
star who played in the majors for a while and later became athletic
director for the Austin Independent School System) came up with
a unique assignment.
"OK, Cox," he said, "if you don't want to suit out, I have a special
job for you. Go walk around the fence line until time to come in."
My school, just opened, had a large un-sodded field on its north
and east sides, old farm land separated from the Missouri, Kansas
and Texas tracks by a long chain-link fence.
"But coach," I whined, "that's physical."
"Oh, it'll be real good for you, Cox," he said. "You'll get plenty
of fresh air, sunshine, some exercise. Besides, like I said, I've
got a job for you -- hunt horny toads."
"Hunt horny toads?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, "catch me a horny toad. I'll give it to my kids
-- they'll love it." He smiled and I laughed.
"I thought it was a pretty funny assignment," I continued in that
essay. "Actually, I thought he was just kidding."
As I explained it back then:
"It was September and still pretty much summer. The air was indeed
enjoyable, and the warm sunshine felt good. I walked the perimeter
of the sprawling P.E. area daily without event for several weeks.
"Then one day as I was ambling along deep in meditation, I heard
a rustling in some grass near the fence line....Suddenly a horned
toad darted from its cover, and the chase was on. I got more exercise
chasing that little creature than I had had all year, or so it seemed.
"I finally corralled the harried horned toad and secured him inside
my cupped hands. I bolted for the building then to give my present
to the coach. He laughed quite a bit when I gave him the toad, and
he thanked me. Then he sent me back on patrol.
"I never found anymore horned toads, but the friendship sparked
by the incident remains. I even started suiting out in P.E!"
I don't remember what grade Coach Goren gave me that distant fall
semester (I suspect a most charitable C-minus), but when I told
the story five years later as a senior, my English teacher put a
large red "A" on it. I've never harmed another horned toad.
"Texas Tales" June
15, 2016 column
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