My mother always said one of the most unforgivable things you can do is lie.
“It’s not what you did, it’s the lie you told when you said you didn’t do it,” she told me several times when I was a little kid. I suspect lots of kids heard similar chastisements from their parents.
It’s a funny thing, then, that after all those warnings about telling the truth, I grew up and became a storyteller—and a Texas storyteller, at that.
Now, I’m not saying I make a habit of lying in the stories I tell every week on our TV show. I do not. But I do recognize that professional storytellers, especially Texas storytellers, have been known to stretch the truth a little bit, to exaggerate their tales for the sake of, well, a more positive reception. Some folks think it’s part of who we are and that people expect it of us. So anyone who chooses to make a profession of telling stories about Texas, I suppose, automatically raises suspicion.
But Texas has deep traditions of storytelling. (There are festivals across the state built around the premise.) And the man some consider to be the father of Texas literature, J. Frank Dobie, said it best: “Any tale belongs to who can best tell it.”
After fifty years of doing what I do, I think I’ve heard ’em all. But I have never heard a more outrageous Texas tale than the Legend of Old Rip.
It goes like this: Back in 1897, folks in Eastland built a new courthouse and, for some reason, put a live Texas horned lizard in the cornerstone. Thirty-one years later, for some reason, they cracked open that cornerstone and, lo and behold, there was that horny toad still alive. Seriously. That’s what they claim.
Folks named the toad “Old Rip” after Rip Van Winkle, who supposedly also had a nice long nap, and Rip toured the country spreading that Texas story far and wide. Then Old Rip died a year after he was sprung from life in the courthouse cornerstone, as a result of an infection caused by pneumonia, they say, and today he resides in the museum in Eastland inside a cute wooden box built by the Abilene Casket Company.
When we visited back in 2009, people in Eastland were still proudly telling the story of Old Rip.
So, is this legend true or just another tall Texas tale? Well, I suspect my mother would have made me do extra chores had I been the one to come up with this story.