Ted Thayer, scion of camouflage


Dec. 5, Marathon, Texas – We drive south on Avenue D, looking for a cemetery Rebbe Dela’O told me about. He promised we’d find it a fascinating snapshot of Marathon’s history.
The graveyard is segregated, he said. Colorful Hispanic graves are set apart from orderly Anglo resting places.
Rebbe said the cemetery is two miles out of town. We see a sign indicating the cemetery is one mile out of town. We don’t see the cemetery, however.
We drive well past two miles, on and on until we reach the end of the road and peaceful Post Park. Here, five miles from Marathon town, a bucolic idyll sits on the site of Fort Pena Colorado, a cavalry post built in the late 19th century to turn back Indian incursions into their former homeland.
Ring-necked ducks emerge from tall reeds in a secluded pond that sits between hills of Caballos novaculite. They are at least 360 million years old.
We are here for a few minutes when a guy drives up in an old Ford Bronco, kicking up dust along the way. He opens the door. A dog bolts out and runs wild beneath winsome cottonwoods.
Still trying to wrap my head around Rebbe and the French Grocer, I am in no hurry to strike up another conversation. But some things follow a course of their own.
Max starts to engage the dog, which suffers from a bad case of mange. He barks menacingly, but we are assured he is harmless.
Sixty-nine-year-old Ted Thayer came to Big Bend country more than three decades ago. He came from Houston, where he had worked for National Cash Register.
Everybody comes here from somewhere else, it seems.
He chucked it all to help a friend start a river-boating guide in Terlingua.
“He was 23, and I was 36,” he says in a gentle Texan drawl. “He promised me 20 hours a week and $5 an hour. How could I turn that down?”
Why, I inquire, do people come here?
“It’s dry here,” he says. “A lot of people come here for their health. Or to get away from people.”
Now he’s onto something, I figure. It’s pretty remote out here. Makes a nice getaway country.
“They come to make their last stand,” he says with a wry grin. “That usually lasts about three months.
“I often wonder where they go from here.”
He says he’s worked hard to free Orion, part collie and part Burmese mountain dog, from his nasty case of the mange. He still works as a guide on the rivers hereabouts. In fact he had just replaced the thermostat in the old Ford Bronco and had taken it out here on a test drive. He’s going out on a job tomorrow, and was thinking of taking the Bronco, if it’s up to the task.
Turns out Ted Thayer’s got quite a lineage. His great-grandfather, Abbott Handerson Thayer, was a famed naturalist and artist. And that’s not all.
“He’s the father of camouflage,” Ted says matter of factly.
Late in the 19th century, Abbott Thayer started studying and writing about concealing coloring in nature. He tried to interest the U.S. Army in his findings, but was repeatedly rebuffed.
“Teddy Roosevelt thought it was ridiculous,” Ted says.
His groundbreaking work might’ve been forgotten, had it not been for his son, Ted’s grandfather Gerald Thayer. In collaboration with his dad, Gerald Thayer published a book in 1909 with the epic title of “Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern; Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Disclosures.”
They used to take book titles seriously, I suppose.
Ted was born in Manhattan. His daddy, Bernard Thayer, was a cartoonist for Yankee magazine.
“Yep,” Ted says idly. “Bernard Thayer, funny man for the Yankee.”
Doing the follow-your-heart thing in reverse, Bernard Thayer gave up his magazine gig to become a pipeline draftsman. He prepared for his new trade at the New York Public Library, then took his family to Houston.
That’s all quite impressive, I say to Ted.
“The Thayers,” he says. “They’re all half-crazy.”
Maybe so, but I’m glad to have met one out here in idyllic, out-of-the-way Post Park, Marathon, Texas.
You just never know who you’ll run into when you’re adrift in America.

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