So these two women are walking down the pathway along Buffalo Bayou west of the downtown towers one morning this summer when a frog leaps out from the river grass and lands at their feet.
"Help me! Help me!," croaks the web-footed agile amphibian to the southwestern female featherless bipeds. "I used to be a Houston oilman, but I was turned into a frog, and if you kiss me I'll become an oilman again."
The women look at each other skeptically and continue their stroll. The frog, as persistent as an old wildcatter, bounds after them, pleading his sorry case. Finally one of the women stoops down, cradles the frog in her hand and puckers her lips in preparation for the magical smooch. But she stops herself, opens her purse, throws the frog inside, snaps it shut and walks on, ignoring the muffled croaks of "Help me! Help me! I'm an oilman!" from beneath the Kleenex inside her handbag.
"What are you doing with that poor frog?" asks her companion. "Why didn't you kiss him?"
"Simple," is the reply. "I figure these days a talking frog is worth a heckuva lot more than a Houston oilman."
The Tale of the Enchanted Frog is Joke No. 1 in Texas this summer. Wheatshockers tell it in Lubbock, changing the oilman to a farmer. Speculators spin the tale in Austin, replacing him with a high-rise developer. Financiers offer it up in Dallas, with a banker in the lead role.
One could argue that the story leaves unanswered the question, Do Texans have a sense of humor? But at least it shows that they are not all bad losers. It was one thing for them to tell self-deprecating jokes when oil was selling at $35 a barrel, but quite another to do so in this brave new world of foreclosures, bankruptcies, repossessions, vacant condos, capped stripper wells, budget deficits and double-digit unemployment.
"Seems like every morning I hear a new one," said E.B. White, an independent oil pricer in Midland who, despite his name, reckons to be not much of a storyteller himself. "I hear them in the morning and then I laugh."
"And then I try real hard to forget."
"What do you call it when a West Texas oilman gives his son 10 stripper wells?"
I give up. What?
Two Austin correspondents who quit their jobs to travel through France were astounded to discover that they had not left the troubled Lone Star behind. One night, after identifying themselves as Texans, they were presented with the question: How do you get a Texan down from a tree?
The answer: Cut the rope.
Texans are well aware that they aren't attracting much sympathy from the rest of the country. "Yankees'd just as soon see us all go under," said Sandra Self Wright, managing editor of Burmass' Permian Basin Oil Directory. "They'll be sorry when the Arabs come in here and take control of this country. They won't be laughing at Texans then."
But there is recognition even out in west Texas that maybe some folks were a mite too free-wheeling during the good old days. That must be why the most popular bumper sticker in Odessa now reads: Please Lord, Give Me One More Oil Boom. This Time I Promise I Won't Expletive It Away.
And it is also a little hard to feel too sorry for a place where they tell hard-times jokes about Mercedes Benzes.
Did you hear in Odessa they're selling Mercedes without seats?
Well, it don't matter. Everyone out there's lost their fanny anyhow.
What's the difference between a pigeon and a west Texas oil driller?
A pigeon can still make a deposit on a Mercedes.
When things were going well in Texas, a cantankerous oilman named Eddie Chiles, owner of the Texas Rangers baseball club, made a national name for himself by dumping on liberals, communists, homosexuals and Washington bureaucrats. His theme was "I'm Eddie Chiles and I'm mad as hell," and his followers took up his call with bumper stickers that read "I'm mad too, Eddie."
But Chiles has sold the Rangers and some of his oil fortune has slipped away. Hence the bumper sticker spotted on dark blue Mercedes convertible driven by a white-templed dandy, probably in real estate: "I'm broke too, Eddie."
In south Texas, along the Mexican border, the hard times jokes tend to be about the declining value of the peso. As in:
So this guy is walking across the bridge with a wheelbarrow full of pesos. A bandido is hiding in the grass at the end of the bridge. He spots the man, slips up behind him, knocks him on the head, dumps the pesos out on the ground and runs off with the wheelbarrow.
The other border jokes would probably be censored by the Meese Commission. In that regard, they say that the funniest, craziest, truest, dirtiest hard-times joke is coming to Austin in early August: the Texas Legislature.