Of Kolaches, Republicans, and West, Texas

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

A few years ago I was back in my home state of Texas visiting relatives. I drove I-35 between Fort Worth and Waco, a road I had traveled, oh, maybe 10,000 times, when I spotted a sign advertising kolaches at the exit for the town of West.

I pulled off at that exit and 20 minutes later drove away happy.

Kolaches, you must know, are Czech pastries with jellied fruit filling, sort of like a Danish only thicker. But they also come in a variety with a link sausage baked into the roll. To live in Central Texas is to clamor for kolaches.

We know about these things because of our fellow Texans whose Czech ancestors settled in the towns around Waco and Bryan – Dime Box, Old Dime Box, Caldwell and West.

Those little towns don’t have much, but what they do have are bakeries or mom-and-pop roadside stores whose owners still make kolaches. We thought nothing of driving 20 miles over farm-to-market roads to bring home white pasteboard boxes filled with fresh pastries.

The land around West is black clay prairie – open, mostly cleared of post oaks, rolling country ideal for growing cotton and sorghum.

I don’t know West, but I’m sure it’s like hundreds of other small towns in that region, a place where life is dominated by the concerns of agriculture – weather, commodity prices, fuel prices – and by rural institutions – school, church and small businesses. Fertilizer plants are not uncommon around there.

By one news account, last week’s explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant that killed at least 14 people and leveled buildings for a mile in all directions destroyed an elementary school and maybe irreparably damaged the middle and high schools as well. It’s not hard to imagine that the folks in West are thanking God that the fire at that plant didn’t start in the middle of the day, when kids would have been in those classrooms. Perhaps that’s one of the miracles to be contemplated in the aftermath of the disaster.

Armchair theologians – as well as reporters who haven’t set foot in a church since the day they were confirmed – asked the tired, old question, “Where was God in West, Texas, when the plant exploded?” One possible answer is that God was cursing the state and federal agencies that had not properly inspected that plant, by one news account, since 1985.

The explosion appears to be due to the deadly conjunction of good intentions and negligence.

The Huffington Post reported that the current owner of the plant is a local farmer, described as a good man who had bought it several years ago to keep it open for the benefit of farms in the area. The plant manager had been in charge for decades, and it’s easy to imagine that the owner simply turned the operation over to the manager, who kept running the plant as he always had.

Missing in action were any inspectors who might have questioned whether the tons of ammonium nitrate in the plant were properly stored.

At least since 1995, when Timothy McVeigh used that same substance to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City, you’d think some federal and state agencies would have redoubled their efforts to check fertilizer plants, but a place like West tends to get overlooked, in more ways than one. Until something like this happens anyway, and then government officials begin looking for the nearest place to point a finger.

The Republicans who largely have run Texas since 1995 ought to point that finger right at themselves. This is a party that abhors government oversight and figures that little operations like West Fertilizer are much better off if they’re left alone. It was, and we see the result.

Inspections might well have shuttered that plant, and the farming community would have been inconvenienced, but it would have survived.

Last week, 14 people didn’t, and West, Texas, may never recover. If I ever again am fortunate enough to get my hands on a Central Texas kolache, I expect it to taste just a little bitter.

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