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Horned toads part of
every Texas boy's life

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Horned 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, P.E.

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.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
June 15, 2016 column
More on Horned Toads

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