A Sense of Wonder

By Michael W. Gos

Weimer, Texas

You have probably heard that the most common final words spoken by Texans are “Hold my beer and watch this.”  I don’t know if that is true or not; maybe it’s just an urban (rural?) legend.  But every once in a while something happens that makes me at least consider the possibility that this saying might have some truth behind it.

I often have to spend a couple of days in Austin on business.  Next to Dallas, Austin is my least favorite place in Texas.  I am convinced the highway system must have been designed by a maniac.  You can move north and south through town in a relatively reasonable manner.  But just try going east to west.  On a good day, the drive from the airport to the Oak Hill Y will take well over an hour.  And of course, if you’re in Austin, what else are you going to do but head west into Hill Country?  After being subjected to days of traffic nightmares, noise and car fumes, I am always ready to head home.  My usual first stop on the way is Weimer.

There is a little bar in town cleverly named The Tavern.  It is a friendly place where locals welcome strangers and people congregate at tables, the bar, and even sometimes outside when the weather is fine.  It takes about an hour to get there from the Austin airport area, and the second half of the drive, heading south out of La Grange, is on an absolutely magnificent two lane road through the rolling, wooded hills.  It is the perfect anecdote to doing time in a city.  By the time I reach Weimer, I have nearly washed Austin out of my soul.

I was sitting at the bar nursing a Corona and talking to a couple of guys who ranched in the area when another man stuck his head in the door and yelled, “Come out here everybody.  You gotta see this!”

Young boys learn a lot of lesson from their fathers—lessons about honesty, hard work and surviving in the world.  For me, one of the most memorable lessons came on my 21st birthday when I was told how important it was to never let a good beer go to waste.  “Think of all those poor, sober kids in Africa,” my father said.  And we both had a good laugh.

So I downed the remnants of that bottle, ordered another one and then moved outside with the rest of the crowd, about 12 of us total.  I saw people forming a circle around two guys busy at work, each stacking charcoal into a mound.  Our “host” filled us in on what was going on.

The two combatants had been sitting at the picnic table having a bragfest about what great barbeque masters they were.  In the course of the argument one apparently said that the other could not even touch his brisket for quality.  In fact, he couldn’t even match him at starting a simple charcoal fire.  The contest was on.

The two stacks of charcoal, when finished, were pretty much identical—36 coals in a pyramid.  The rules were then laid out.  Our host would be the official timer.  One at a time, each contestant would light his fire.  The one who got all his coals covered with white ash in the shortest time was the winner.  With everyone agreed on the rules, they flipped a coin to see who would go first.

The first guy went to his truck and pulled out a cutting torch attached to an acetylene tank.  He turned it on, fired it up and said to the timer, “Ready?”  On go, the man set the flame to the charcoal.  In less than a minute, he had a bed of coals I would have slapped a steak on.  He looked at his adversary triumphantly only to receive the comment, “That’s all you got?  My old lady can do better than that.”

The second man walked over to his van and came back with a pitcher full of smoking liquid.  He said, “Stand back everybody, if you want to keep your eyebrows.  He struck a wooden match on his beard and threw it next to the charcoal pile.  Then he tossed the liquid in.

One second after the explosion, the entire pile of charcoal was white and ready to go.

“LOX,” he said.  Everyone laughed and several slapped him on the back in congratulations.  Gradually, we made our way back into the bar.  I could tell both from the looks on faces and the hushed conversations I could overhear, that many in the crowd were experiencing a sense of wonder.

I sat down and resumed my afternoon but couldn’t help notice that I wasn’t sharing that feeling of wonderment.  I’ve learned long ago to never underestimate the intelligence and versatility of “good old boys.”  But while everyone else talked about how amazing the explosion was, I just saw it as normal. That happens to me quite a bit these days—and I think I miss a lot of fun because of it.

I don’t see much that I don’t understand.  To feel a sense of wonder, we have to recognize our ignorance of a subject.  Had I not understood what liquid oxygen could do to a fire, I might have been in absolute awe about the explosion and how he did it.  But I know how that works, so it was just another witnessed event, and one I had seen before.

As children, the entire world is a place of wonder to us, and as a result, we find everything exciting and new.  But somewhere along the line, we start to feel that wonder is not such a good thing.  Perhaps it makes us feel ignorant.  Most certainly it makes us feel we are not in control of things.  When we understand how and why things happen, we feel on top of the situation.

One issue we face when studying any subject that is entirely new to us is that we don’t yet know what it is we don’t know.  That problem really unsettles some of my students.  It is easy to learn about something when we already have enough of a background in the subject to formulate a good set of questions—questions that, when answered, can fill in the holes in our knowledge.  We need only go to the library or online to find the answers.  That is how professionals do it.  But I teach research skills to freshmen college students and I assign topics I think they will know nothing about.  As a result of their lack of basic knowledge, they can’t yet formulate those good questions and they are doomed to read anything they can find on the subject—a time-consuming process that some of them find boring.  But I always hope they will take a different view, that they will recognize there is a whole chunk of the world out there they never knew existed—and then get excited about it and feel that sense of wonderment.  When that happens, it makes teaching worthwhile.

Staying away from things we don’t know, sticking only to what we already understand, may give us a sense of control—maybe even of power.  But it comes with a tremendous price.  It deprives us of our sense of wonder.

Note: To see videos of the LOX charcoal lighting process, visit either of the sites below:

One Comment to “A Sense of Wonder”

  1. Jack Lampe says:

    As always, it is rewarding to learn more about the good aspects of rural Texas life. Must admit I was curious as to what new subjects MG’s students were asked to learn about.

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