This has not been the best of years in the Southwest, and in times like these, when life goes bad for awhile, people tend to look for symbols and omens. Everything becomes part of a conspiracy -- even, or perhaps especially, inanimate objects. It could not have been coincidence that the oil well on the Oklahoma capitol grounds went dry just when the petroleum industry was collapsing. And now, here in Austin, why are Texans having so much trouble with their Goddess of Liberty, crowning symbol of the state capitol dome?
They took her down for repairs six months ago, and all hell broke loose: Without her on top of things, so to speak, the oil fields went bust and the state budget slipped billions into the red. Then they decided that the century-old zinc statue was beyond repair, so they tried to replicate her with 3,000 pounds of aluminum. The price of oil dropped again. Then they unveiled the new lady, and some Texans winced: They said she looked like a Texas Tech offensive lineman. That brought on a rage of tornadoes and floods.
The suffering was supposed to end last Saturday. Texans had learned how to be humble; they were ready to brag. The goddess was going back where she belonged, to the top of the dome, making this, once more, the tallest of the nation's Renaissance revival capitols, taller by a few feet than the one in Washington. Perhaps with her in place the natural order of things would be restored. The bankers, brokers, Realtors and wildcatters would resume their profitable ways.
By 8 a.m. the capitol square was roped off and several thousand Austinites had gathered in the nearby streets. Lee Iacocca had nothing to do with this event. The Colorado River was too shallow to hold the QE2 and tall ships. No one was selling viewing access for $5,000 per person. In other words, for once Texas, in comparison with the hoopla planned for the refurbished Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, was being restrained. Still, it was quite something when a giant CH47 Chinook cargo helicopter piloted by Col. Jim Looney of the Texas National Guard took off from Camp Mabry in northwest Austin and headed downtown with the goddess dangling below on ropes and straps.
The Chinook traveled so slowly and made so much noise that it was its own advance team. People and dogs in one neighborhood after another moved out into the streets to gaze up, gawk and bark at the sight. It is not every day that a shining white goddess flies by. Cheers greeted its arrival downtown, but the exhilaration was soon replaced by anxiety. The weather was windy and wet, and the task of fitting the hollowed goddess into a cruciform shaft rising from the dome was a difficult one under the best of circumstances. Col. Herbert Purtle, aviation officer for the state Guard unit, likened the pilot's task to trying to thread a needle in the dark.
After 10 minutes of hovering above the dome, the helicopter team, frustrated by the strong winds, retreated to Camp Mabry, accompanied by the local news helicopters. People and dogs returned to the streets as the chopper came back north. The crowds down at the capitol followed the goddess back to camp. Three more attempts were made that day, but the mission came close to success only once. The goddess touched down on the shaft, but got stuck on it, so the helicopter had to pull away. By the fourth trip not even the dogs were barking anymore, so accustomed had they become to the whirling blades overhead.
On Sunday the weather was slightly better and all of Austin seemed hooked on the saga of the goddess. Crowds gathered early at Camp Mabry and the capitol. Gov. Mark White (D) staked out a viewing spot in an office building across the street. It was early afternoon when the helicopter lifted off. One of the local TV stations interrupted a Texas Rangers baseball game to go live with the action. And again the helicopter swooped down toward the dome, lowering the goddess toward the shaft, but it never connected. Overcome by stress and fatigue, the team returned to camp and called it a week.
At dinner parties and bars all over Texas that night, the goddess was topic No. 1. It seemed that everyone had an idea on how to get her back on the dome. The Austin American-Statesman set up a phone bank and asked people to call in with suggestions. According to Diane Porter, editor of the Lifestyle section, 430 people called in one day. On Wednesday, the best read page of the newspaper was C5, an entire page of ideas. One thing you can't take away from Texans is their sense of humor:
*Set the goddess on top of the state deficit. By the time the legislature gets here in January, it should be the right height.
*1 million Aggies should lift the capitol, with Mark White directing, and move it under the statue.
Invite King Kong to Austin.
*Get the twin towers, Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, to lift her into place.
*We are obviously worshipping false goddesses. If she were a real goddess, she'd fly up there herself.
*Put the goddess in the right mood. Ply her with champagne and play Frank Sinatra records.
*Recruit all the state politicians and, as in ancient Egypt, have them pull the goddess up with pulleys.
*Step 1: Build a dirt ramp all the way around the dome. It should cover the capitol and be an inclined ramp. Step 2: Have volunteers walk her up there and put her in place. Step 3: Leave the dirt where it is. Step 4: The Texas legislature can't meet anymore.
Roy Graham, architect of the capitol, studied all the suggestions. He said the helicopter will probably be tried again. The fate of Texas hangs in the balance.