After all these years, I am finally getting around to reading Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, and you know what? It is just as great as everyone says it is, maybe even greater. I’ve never read a better biography. What astonishes me is the skill with which Caro paces his story, considering its length, and considering how many digressions are necessarily embedded in it.
Caro is fabulously skilled at those digressions; he knows just how long they need to be in order to give the information that readers need if they are to grasp what LBJ was doing and why it mattered. In the first volume, his portrait of Sam Rayburn is a masterful mini-biography that tells us everything we need to know about that remarkable man in a dozen pages; it faithfully guides us when we see Rayburn’s actions later in the story. There are many such character sketches in this book, and each of them is a little marvel of lucidity, compression, and the art of the well-chosen detail. Thus we hear that W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, the supposedly populist governor, when told that some people thought that his policies were betraying his supporters, plaintively replied, “How can they say I’m against the working man when I buried my daddy in overalls?”
But of these digressions, the best one in the first volume, surely, accompanies the account of how LBJ brought electricity to the farms and ranches of the Texas Hill Country. Caro gives us a brief but brilliant history of the daily lives of people of that region in the years before electricity: how they got their water; how they cooked and cleaned; how they milked their cows in the dark, not daring to bring a kerosene lantern into the barn for fear of fire. (Also: precisely how much light kerosene lanterns of the time provided.) He tells us why many of them were afraid of the coming of electricity, and afraid that the government would cheat them, as it had so often cheated them in the past. And then he tells us just how the electrical lines were built:
The poles that would carry the electrical lines had to be sunk in rock. Brown & Root’s mechanical hole-digger broke on the hard Hill Country rock. Every hole had to be dug mostly by hand. Eight or ten-man crews would pile into flatbed trucks – which also carried their lunch and water – in the morning and head out into the hills. Some trucks carried axemen, to hack paths through the cedar; others contained the hole-diggers. “The hole-diggers were the strongest men,” Babe Smith says. Every 300 or 400 feet, two would drop off and begin digging a hole by pounding the end of a crowbar into the limestone. After the hole reached a depth of six inches, half a stick of dynamite was exploded in it, to loosen the rock below, but that, too, had to be dug out by hand. “Swinging crowbars up and down – that’s hard labor,” Babe Smith says. “That’s back-breaking labor.” But the hole-diggers had incentive. For after the hole-digging teams came the pole-setters and “pikemen,” who, in teams of three, set the poles – thirty-five-foot pine poles from East Texas – into the rock, and then the “framers” who attached the insulators, and then the “stringers” who strung the wires, and at the end of the day the hole-diggers could see the result of their work stretching out behind them – poles towering above the cedars, silvery lines against the sapphire sky. And the homes the wires were heading toward were their own homes. “These workers – they were the men of the cooperative,” Smith says. Gratitude was a spur also. Often the crews didn’t have to eat the cold lunch they had brought. A woman would see men toiling toward her home to “bring the lights.” And when they arrived, they would find that a table had been set for them – with the best plates, and the very best food that the family could afford. Three hundred men – axemen, polemen, pikers, hole-diggers, framers – were out in the Edwards Plateau, linking it to the rest of America, linking it to the twentieth century, in fact, at the rate of about twelve miles per day.
All of this comes not from reading books – there’s much here that no book has told – but from interviewing people who were present when the electrification of the Hill Country happened. (In the late Seventies Caro and his wife, though lifelong and happy New Yorkers, moved for a couple of years to the Hill Country, because it took that long to acquire the older folks’ trust.)
Eventually, twelve miles a day, the electrification was done, though not without strain of many kinds. Here’s how the chapter concludes:
Brian Smith had persuaded many of his neighbors to sign up, and now, more than a year after they had paid their five dollars, and then more money to have their houses wired, his daughter Evelyn recalls that her neighbors decided they weren’t really going to get it. She recalls that “All their money was tied up in electric wiring” – and their anger was directed at her family. Dropping in to see a friend one day, she was told by the friend’s parents to leave: “You and your city ways. You can go home, and we don’t care to see you again.” They were all but ostracized by their neighbors. Even they themselves were beginning to doubt; it had been so long since the wiring was installed, Evelyn recalls, that they couldn’t remember whether the switches were in the ON or OFF position.
But then one evening in November, 1939, the Smiths were returning from Johnson City, where they had been attending a declamation contest, and as they neared their farmhouse, something was different.
“Oh my God,” her mother said. “The house is on fire!”
But as they got closer, they saw the light wasn’t fire. “No, Mama,” Evelyn said. “The lights are on.”
They were on all over the Hill Country. “And all over the Hill Country,” Stella Gliddon says, “people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson.”