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Robert A. Caro, Private Eye

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

For his work on Lyndon Johnson, Robert and Ina went to live on the edge of the Hill Country to learn from ranchers and farmers about Johnson’s boyhood and young manhood. Of course Caro could not stop asking questions about everything, every day of everyone.

He had the tables turned on him by a taciturn woman whose exasperation with tomfool questions forced her to blurt out: “You’re a city boy. You don’t know how heavy a bucket of water is, do you?” He had to understand what it meant in the 1930s and 1940s, when every day, for hand-washing clothes and cooking, the wives had to bring up water from a deep well a way down from the house. Then they’d have to stand over a hot wood stove to press the heaps of washing with heavy iron bars. So Caro took the woman’s old bucket with a long frayed rope, dropped it in the deep well and heaved it up again. Heavy, yes!

Being Caro, he took his questions to a 1940 Agriculture Department study. It told him he’d have to haul up 40 gallons a day for each person. He had to imagine a Hill Country family of five collecting 200 gallons a day, carried back to the house two buckets at a time, with the people yoked like cattle to a heavy bar of wood across the shoulder.

Caro insists that the three years he and Ina spent in the Hill Country weren’t a sacrifice. “Getting a chance to learn, being forced to learn — really learn so that I could write about it in depth” was “an opportunity to explore, to discover, a whole new world when you were already in your 40s.” It was “a privilege, exciting. The two of us remember those years as a thrilling, wonderful adventure.”

The phrase Caro recited in his sleep (I’m guessing) was “Papers don’t die; people do.” So he had to get to the right people as soon as he could to know where to look for the papers. And the papers were all too often the only source for identifying the individuals who might have answers to his proliferating questions. The papers!

Consider walking into the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin for the first time, past the presidential armored limousine, and the assault on your senses of thousands and thousands of boxes of papers, 40,000, each with a capacity of 800 pages. As the archivist said, yessir, that’s 32 million pages awaiting your attention.

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