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A Place Called Midland: George W. Bush's Home Ground

September 07, 2000|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIDLAND, Texas — "In Midland, Texas, where I grew up, the town motto was 'The sky is the limit' . . . and we believed it. There was a restless energy, a basic conviction that, with hard work, anybody could succeed, and everybody deserved a chance. . . ."

--From Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush's acceptance speech

*

Folks here are outwardly friendly toward strangers. They tip their hats, open doors and say, "Hello. How ya dewin?"

When outsiders don't know the customary response, longtime resident Bill Munn says he advises them. "If you don't say, 'Fine, how are you, nice day,' you're a pompous jerk," the Midland oil company executive explains. "That's the game."

These days, George W. Bush is busy polishing the halo of Midland as a typical American small town. Outsiders, however, might find it an unusually close-knit community with attitude. A place of extremes, with opportunity for some and, like many towns across America, a history of race and class distinctions. A place where parents raise children to say "Yes, Ma'am," to go to church on Sunday but to kick butt at the Friday night football game.

Sort of like "It's a Wonderful Life," starring Tommy Lee Jones. Jones (who later was Democratic nominee Al Gore's college roommate) actually grew up in Midland, as did George W.'s wife, Laura. Bush himself lived there from age 2 to 13.

Physically, the town appears Eisenhower-era normal with its orderly street grids, twittering birds and solid brick homes, schools and churches. Civic leaders have preserved a block of "Old Town Midland" from the '50s, which includes the Rexall drugstore where Laura and her friends sat on red plastic stools sipping malteds and cherry Cokes.

A few blocks east, however, a handful of 26-story "high-rises" in a miniature downtown hint at the city's reason for being--oil and the chance to make fortunes.

A few more blocks in any direction and it becomes apparent the city of 100,000 is an island that, along with neighboring city Odessa, is surrounded by miles and miles of hot, flat, sandy nothing. Midland, 300 miles from El Paso to the west and Fort Worth to the east, is connected with the outside world mostly by airplanes, telephones, television and computers.

Besides their unusual sociability, the citizens of Midland have some other distinguishing characteristics.

* Their inconspicuous wealth: Periodically, Midland, a boom or bust town about 65% dependent on the oil and gas industry, has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the United States. Currently, it is recovering from a bust when oil prices plummeted in 1998. But even during the boom years when the Bushes were there, you didn't see many fancy cars or much jewelry, as in Dallas.

* Their love of winning: Friday nights during football season in Midland, cars line up for five miles, lights flashing, horns honking, to welcome home the high school teams. If the team has lost, only a couple of cars show up.

* Their oversized hearts: In 1987 when toddler Jessica McClure fell into an abandoned backyard water well in Midland, 400 volunteers rushed to the rescue. Twenty thousand people signed a get-well card for her after she was saved.

* Their resistance to change: In the 1950s, African Americans and Latinos lived literally across the tracks from whites, worked menial jobs and attended separate schools. Midland was one of the nation's last cities to desegregate its elementary schools, devising a plan after the federal government filed suit against the Midland school district in 1976.

"There is a lot of poverty in Midland," said Louisa Valencia, 68, a longtime resident who is the lone Democrat on the county board that sets tax rates. "The rich people don't see it."

"Our sense of community was just as strong as that sense of promise. Neighbors helped each other. There were dry wells and sandstorms to keep you humble, and lifelong friends to take your side, and churches to remind us that every soul is equal in value and equal in need.

"This background leaves more than an accent, it leaves an outlook. Optimistic. Impatient with pretense. Confident that people can chart their own course. . . ."

Now the Bushes live in Austin, the state capital. Before that, they lived in Dallas. They and their friends sound nostalgic when they talk about their hometown and its values. They point to the integrity and honesty of the old-time cattle ranchers and independent oilmen, the can-do attitude of its civic leaders, the stability of its families.

Growing up in the '50s, when the town had less than 30,000 people, children felt safe, secure and accountable, they say. Friendships, however, rarely crossed class or racial lines. Children, the Bushes recall, felt free to roam and to dream of making their lives whatever they wanted.

Bush feels so tied to Midland, he has said he wants to be buried there.

The town would never have developed its distinct personality were it not for the individuals who built the first multi-story buildings in the late '20s.

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