Two Texas Gentlemen
Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.
My grandfather, whom we called Daddy Jeter (E.G. or Glenn to his friends) owned land outside of Quinlan, Texas—about 140 acres of Black Land, so called because of its midnight color. During drought it is as hard as rock; after a soaking rain it is as sticky as tar. A doublewide was nestled among cottonwoods just off the center of the property. It had a potbelly stone in the living room that could heat the whole house in the winter. In 1973, my family gathered in that trailer and watched the tennis match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs in what was billed as“The Battle of the Sexes.” (Billy Jean won.) My grandmother use to cook me six eggs for breakfast whenever I visited on the weekends. When my grandfather bought the land there was a redbrick house that stood where the doublewide rested. That house was lost in a fire in what year I can’t remember. The property boasted two stock ponds, a hay barn and tractor shed, a garden and chicken coop, and fifty or so head of cattle. My grandparents didn’t live on what we called the Farm; they lived in town—in Garland. The Farm was a weekend and holiday retreat—and a magical place for a boy to grow up. It was the place where I learned to fish, shoot, ride, drive, and dream.
Whether mowing pastures, putting up hay, tending cattle, chopping wood, and gathering vegetables in the garden my grandfather used each activity to teach a masterclass in life. Today they are considered old-fashioned, but my grandfather passed down the virtues of gentle manliness—of what it means to be a gentleman. My time with him on the Farm taught me to face my fears with courage, to work hard until the job is done, to honor my word, to value a man’s handshake as a sacred bond, to care for those weaker than myself, to steward God’s creation, and to love and respect my elders.
Daddy Jeter never lectured, unless I did or said something stupid. Rather, he embodies the virtues of a gentleman. I observed his gentle and manly character in how he called his cattle in for hay or cake and treated their ailments; in how he teased my grandmother but never belittled her, but adored her; in how his rough hands worked a fencepost and wire or hoed a straight furrow; in how he wiped the sweat from his brow while planting and harvesting his garden; in how he looked a neighbor in the eye when he spoke and shook another man’s hand with firmness and sincerity; in how he spoke to my sisters and me while teaching us to bait a hook and in how his face lit up whenever we caught a bass or catfish; in how he shared his cheese and Vienna sausage (which he loved) with his grandson; in how he stood and tipped his hat whenever a lady entered a room; and how he greeted oncoming cars and trucks on the Farm to Market roads that cut across that country with a friendly wave of his index finger (what Texans call the hidy sign).
The memories of those years and the tutelage of those gentlemanly traits came rushing back while on a recent trip to West Texas. After a stressful school year for her and the completion of a difficult publishing assignment for me, Christy and I needed to take time for soulship. We found it in the solitude of the Big Bend country of Alpine and Fort Davis. We had no agenda but to enjoy each other, to recalibrate toward the slow and the simple, and to find solace in the quiet of creation.
However, I did have one thing I wanted to accomplish: to see whether John Davis of Limpia Creek Hats would be willing to build me a custom cowboy hat. Unfortunately, I was meet with a “Closed” sign on his door. Christy and I had encountered any number of such signs due to the Coronavirus, which was just then taking hold in Brewster and Jeff Davis counties. I would call, expecting to be greeted with an answering machine that might tell me when John would reopen. Instead, to my surprise, he answered the phone. We spoke a minute or two. He told me he puts out the sign to keep tourists away but would be happy to talk with me about a hat; I should come by the shop.
John greeted us with a broad smile under a bushy mustache. He was steaming and shaping a customer’s hat. I appreciated him seeing me since he doesn’t take walk-ins and he didn’t need my business. (John has a backlog of six months on hat orders.) I was grateful not only for his generosity of spirit, but also his gentlemanly manner. There was an ease about him that reminded me of my grandfather. As he worked the customer’s hat and spoke, his responds were filled with “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am,” though I clearly was his junior. Shaped to satisfaction he sent his other customer on his way with a firm handshake and a warm goodbye. Turning to me, he took measurements and we discussed my hat—all the time looking me in the eye. When we concluded our business he shook my hand and turned to Christy and removed his hat and extended his hand. We had already encountered others who gave us the hidy sign on the road or who had waved as we walked down the street, but it had been years since I had seen a man remove his hat for a lady. The very thing I remember my grandfather doing.
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.” I believe so, because in a world filled with busy people, busy about life, trying to manage their careers and fears, it is easy to become insular and isolated—to forget simple courtesies like listening when others talk, looking them in the eye when you speak, and lifting your hat when you say goodbye. These are the gentlemanly virtues that communicate the importance of others. Something, I fear, is too often lost in a society obsessed with navel gazing. It wasn’t lost on Glenn Jeter. It isn’t lost on John Davis. I pray it isn’t, and will never be, lost on Derrick Jeter—especially after he gets his new hat.