She stands tall and fair and impossible to overlook in the Managua airport’s duty free shop. Her ash-blond hair and heaven-blue eyes cause more than one head to glance a second, a third time in her direction. Her name is Evelina. She’s 18 and Nicaraguan, but bears only latent genes from her tropics-born mother. Instead her features carry the memory of her East German father, long-returned to his homeland. Perhaps her delicate cheek bones and milky complexion are the only memories her mother has of her lover, one of hundreds of military advisors whose tour of duty brought them to this hot and dusty outpost. Evelina is a woman-child born of a brief union between a soldier chilled by loneliness and a woman burning with a desire to escape a nation destroyed by war and political intrigue. Her hair is pulled back and fastened with a black bow, exposing her ears and throat, emphasizing her whiteness next to her light bronze coworkers. She is tall and slim, nearly a head taller than her Latin companions, an especially beautiful flower standing a bit more lovely than the others in their little garden. Evelina sells watches and perfumes and T-shirts and American liquors to departing international travelers. I sit observing her from the chairs in front of her shop. I see her watch the departing passengers standing in line to board their plane. I wonder how much of her heart leaves with them. Does it seek someone like herself? Does it seek a country where she does not stand out so emphatically as being different? She shares a joke with Marvina, their laughter mingling on its way to where I sit. Marvina’s laughter is like thick, sweet honey, Evelina’s like water bubbling from a cold spring. Even as her lips grace her admirers with a smile, there is a distant look in her eyes. How cold is the loneliness of her own heart every time she looks in the mirror and thinks of a father she never saw? What are the passions that burn within as she works in a menial job, earning barely enough to pay her tuition as she seeks to escape the same desperation that entrapped her mother? I feel drawn to her, to ask her these questions, to listen to her open her heart. But...no…for now I hear my flight called. I rise from my watching-place and cast a final glance her way. Good-bye, fair Evelina. May you someday follow your heart to find whatever it is you seek.
About this blog
Occasional random and not necessarily related musings of an ex-pat Horned Frog. I'd call it stream of consciousness but it's more of a trickle, really.
Entries in this blog
The Summer of 1980 was by far the hottest, evilest heat I've ever experienced. I remember that summer well. I was riding for Will Speck, the owner of the Draggin'-S brand down northeast of Bandera. The grass was brown and dry and brittle...Will told all us hands he wanted no smokes outside the ranch house so's to lower the chance of a sudden fire. Lots of the boys took up chewin' because of that "no smokes" rule, but it didn't last too long because we were all too dry to spit.
Anyway, one really hot, hot day I was ridin' the fence to patch up any breaks the stock caused from trying to get into the next field to look for moisture. It was miserable with hardly any shade except for this one old tree leaning out over the creek, which was now nothing but a dry creek bed. So I ease my horse--a pretty little mare called Dynamite Chica 'cause she was little but could blow up mighty big under a careless rider--I ease Chica down into the dry creek bed and we stop under the shade of that one tree. Well, I dismount and loosen the cinch to give Chica a bit of breathin' room and lean back against the rocky sides of that creek bed to wipe what little sweat I could produce from out of my hat. There were the usual noises out there, 'way off from town--the wind blowing through dry grass and leafless tree limbs, the whirring whine of the cicadas, all those were normal, but...there was something else I couldn't quite place. It was like something scraping on hard ground or rock, sort of metallic-like.
So bein' naturally curious I start looking around for what's making that noise. I figured at first maybe an old tin can was blowing around in the breeze, but the sound was from down low, in the creek bed, where there wasn't much wind. I keep looking and finally I saw it...something that made my jaw drop.
Comin' right down the middle of that rocky creek bed was one of those green and yellow and black striped lizards. And the scrapin' sound was sure enough metal on rock, 'cause that lizard was draggin' a canteen.
Yeah...that Texas summer of 1980 was sure enough one to remember.
This was a joke told many years ago by Will Rogers which I borrowed and turned into a poem. I now post it to FrogAblog, and dedicate it to Baylor administrators, coaches and fans.
When A Feller Oughta Keep Quiet
Let me tell you `bout a mountain lion a `way out in th' west.
When it come to killin' cows an' sheep, why, he must've been th' best.
A reg'lar varmint legend of widespread renown,
He was the scourge of ranchers for a'hunnerd miles around.
While passin' through a cattle ranch he killed hisself a bull,
He ate an' ate, an' stuffed hisself until he was plumb full!
Then to celebrate th' feast, or maybe cuz he was bored,
That fat ol' mountain lion rared back and roared…an' roared…an' roared!
Now all the caterwaulin' that th' mountain lion had done
Caught the ear of a passin' cowboy, who pulled out his trusty gun.
He took his aim.his shot was true.an' to that cat's su'prise,
Th' cowboy shot hisself a lion! Smack between th' eyes!
So the moral to my story, with no "if" "and" or "but,"
Is when a feller's full o' bull. he'd best keep his mouth shut!
The clerk in the paint department at Home Depot thought I was a little strange. There I was, Saturday-morning-jeans-and-flannel-shirt
dressed, a shopping list in one hand and a cup of complimentary coffee in the other, standing in front of the paint display, laughing out
loud. You see, they had polyurethane varnish on sale and that bought it all back in a rush, the memory of the time my Uncle Fred varnished
Uncle Fred was a fool for things on sale. If something was on sale he felt he ought to buy it...save some money...get a good deal...even
if it was something he had no idea of when or where or how he would use it. Fred saved so much money buying stuff on sale he was usually
short a week before payday. He was always surprising Aunt Birdie with what he'd bring home from a trip to town. (Her name was really
Bertha, but that was shortened to "Bertie," of course, and most of us kids thought it was "Birdie" so that's what we all grew up calling
her.) When Wal-Mart opened up a store in the town just up the road from Fred and Birdie's farm, he must have thought he'd died and gone to
heaven. On one Saturday trip to town for a haircut and "just to pick up a couple of things at the Wal-Mart's to fix the electric fence
the new calf knocked down," Fred saw a big display of generic disposable diapers, marked 50% off. Now, Fred and Birdie hadn't had any
babies around the farm in 20 or 25 years, but these diapers were just too good a deal to pass up. Fred bought 200. The woman at the
checkout probably gave him the same kind of look the Home Depot paint consultant gave me -- a 68 year-old man buying a dozen ceramic
insulators, a pound-and-a-half of wood screws, and 200 disposable diapers does make the average clerk take notice, after all. Well,
naturally when Fred got back home he had some explaining to do. Birdie was a practical-minded woman, and being well past child-bearing age
and disposition, she simply could not imagine why 200 disposable diapers were a bargain at any price. But if Birdie was practical she was
also still in love with Fred after their 49 years together, and had resigned herself to never fully understanding this man who had won her
heart. Fred mumbled something about "insulation" and "chick brooder" and that was enough for Birdie. The disposable diapers went into the
shed on the top shelf over the door -- until the following February.
That February was the coldest, windiest, meanest February anybody under the age of 85 could remember. It was cold in the morning. It
stayed cold all day. It seemed even colder at night. Fred and Birdie's house was modestly insulated, too modestly for that February.
They had butane to cook and heat with, and usually the space heaters kept the house warm enough, but not that February. You see, Fred was
a little short on cash until the end of the month, having saved too much money at Barney's Auction Barn again, and the little bit of butane
left in the tank had to be rationed. They both wore long cotton underwear and two shirts and a jacket around the house during the daytime,
but at night, well, at night, it was just too cold to sleep. That's when Fred remembered the disposable diapers. If those diapers would
have insulated the chick brooder, why wouldn't they insulate anything? Fred brought in the cartons, spread a few diapers on the kitchen
table (it was warm in the kitchen from Birdie's cooking) and sat down to think. It's amazing how crisis can inspire genius, and that's
what Fred's idea was, just sheer genius. It took him only an hour or so and a six cups of coffee, too. That night Fred and Birdie
prepared for bed, but this time they were ready for anything a cold February night had in store. They wore disposable diapers. They wore
them around their legs, around their arms, around every bit of them they could cover with a diaper. One diaper was just the right size to
wrap around an arm or a leg, and the diaper's own strip of sticky tape snugged it down so it didn't fall off. Fred pieced several diapers
together with that tape, wrapped them around his chest, and pulled a tee shirt on over them. Pajamas over that, and he was ready for bed.
Birdie was a little trickier to fit, owing to a few now relatively minor anatomical differences, but soon she too was fully insulated
against the bitter February winter. Of course, once insulated they had to move around the house carefully to avoid loosening the tape, but
all in all it was an outstanding feat. They were already dressed for bed one night when I stopped by to see how they were doing, and I'll
confess I was impressed. They did look a little odd, sort of like two deep-sea divers with their suits inflated and their steel helmets
off, walking stiff-legged around the house, but they were warm enough, and that's all that mattered. The diaper insulation lasted only
about a week, then the sticky tape began to come lose during the night and the diapers began bunching up, but by then Fred's Social
Security check had come in the mail and he had enough money to call the butane truck out to fill up the tank again. I don't know whatever
happened to the rest of those diapers. I suppose they're still out in the shed, waiting for the chick brooder project.
But I digress. I was telling you about varnishing the outhouse.
Uncle Fred’s favorite place for sniffing out bargains was Rudy’s Railroad Salvage. Rudy’s was a large barn-like warehouse with splintery
wood floors, concrete block walls, a tin roof that had seen much better days at least a decade before, and military-surplus light fixtures
swinging from black and red wiring. The warehouse held an astounding inventory: garden rakes and folding chairs, wool socks by the gross
and roofing nails by the keg. Somewhere among the remnants of lost and damaged freight shipments Fred discovered a stack of five-gallon
plastic buckets of polyurethane varnish for $25 each, no limit, cash-and-carry. As he read the label on one bucket, Fred realized this
polyurethane varnish was almost miraculous. It dried fast to a hard, water-resistant finish and bonded to any porous surface, guaranteed
not to peel or blister for at least five years if applied according to the instructions on the label. Now Fred has been meaning to do
something about the worn floorboards and railings on the front porch. Fact was, Birdie had been gently nagging him about it for the last
six or seven years. And the porch swing, and the porch furniture, they could stand a fresh coat of varnish as well. So Rudy loaded two
five-gallon buckets of varnish into Fred’s old pickup, and stuffed five $10 dollar bills into his own pocket.
Fred’s truck bounced over the cattle guard into the driveway and for once in her life Birdie was pleased as punch to see Fred come home
from Rudy’s. She had groceries to buy and an appointment at the hairdresser’s for a permanent and needed the truck herself, and Fred had
finally bought something at Rudy’s that wouldn’t wind up gathering dust in the shed. She beamed as she made Fred’s lunch, telling him how
happy she was that he was finally finding time to “take care of that little honey-do project and paint my porch, it’s such a pitiful
sight.” She kissed him lovingly on the cheek then climbed into the pickup and headed to town while Fred dug an assortment of brushes and
pails out of the shed, preparing to varnish every unfinished stick of wood on the porch. Which he did, and it was beautiful, too, drying
to a high-gloss finish so shiny it looked like ice. The job went quickly, Fred being nothing if not a hard worker, and he was finished
with at least an hour to spare before Birdie returned from town. Fred discovered he’d overestimated the amount of varnish he needed, and
still had quite a bit left in the second bucket. Still in a varnishing mood, he looked around for anything else that needed a quick coat.
After varnishing two trivets and an old ladder-back chair without a bottom, Fred’s eyes found the outhouse.
I never really understood why Fred and Birdie didn't put indoor plumbing in their farmhouse, but evidently they were satisfied with the
two-holer that came with the place. How it had withstood so many bitter winters and blazing summers was a testament to its builder’s
skills and the quality of the wood he used. Fred commented on that fact more than once, always saying something like "they just don’t
build ‘em that way anymore," which was certainly true. I didn’t know of anyone for miles around who had actually built any kind of
outhouse in the past fifteen years, much less one that would stand as a monument to home carpentry.
The outhouse had been painted long ago, so long ago that the color had been forgotten and now only naked wood faced the elements. Fred
reasoned a couple of coats of varnish would not only make the old outhouse look better than new, but they would further extend the privy's
useful life for as long as he would have any interest in it. The old pine boards were dry and drank up the varnish. There was just a
little left in the bucket, and not wanting to waste any of his bargain, Fred finished his afternoon of varnishing frenzy by applying a
liberal coat to the seats. There! Wouldn't Birdie be pleased!
Fred cleaned his brushes with paint thinner, wrapped them carefully in old rags, and stored them in the shed. Then he went to the back
porch, washed the varnish spatters off his hands and forearms, picked up the morning newspaper he hadn't finished at breakfast, and leaned
back in his living room recliner to catch up on current world events. All that work had left him pleasantly weary, however, and inside of
ten minutes he was snoring peacefully, headlines across his stomach. While he was asleep, Birdie came home.
Birdie came in the back door to the kitchen, but she'd already seen the front porch with its new coat of varnish. That "polly-thing"
varnish made the wood look, well, so shiny, she sighed, but at least it was done and looked much better than before. She put away her
groceries, set her pocketbook on the shelf in the bedroom closet, checked her new permanent once more in the dresser mirror, then walked
out the back door to the outhouse.
Fred awoke from his well-earned nap and immediately noticed it was nearly sundown. He stood up, turned on a light, and checked his pocket
watch. Quarter of seven, Birdie should be home by now and supper should have been on the table a half-hour ago. Fred shuffled into the
kitchen, looked around, and saw no sign of Birdie. Beginning to feel slightly alarmed, he looked out the window and saw the pickup truck
parked exactly where it should be, under the carport, but still no Birdie. He walked into their bedroom, looking for signs she'd come
home, but saw nothing. Her pocketbook...where did she keep it? The closet, that's right...top shelf...next to the old hatbox. Yes, it
was there. But, where was Birdie? Fred was a man who counted on his woman's routine and predictable habits, and this was unsettling,
finding she had been there and now was no where to be found. He returned to the kitchen, stepped out the back door, and into the yard,
just in case she was in the garden doing goodness knows what at this hour. It was then that Fred heard the moans coming from the outhouse.
Fred hurried to the source of the cries, and putting his mouth close to the door called, "Bertie? Hon, is that you?" Now I don't know
who else Fred would have expected to find in that outhouse, but I suppose the surprise of hearing that sad, mournful sound coming from its
interior would make anyone pause before jumping to a conclusion.
"Oh, Fred! Of course it's me!" Birdie cried out, "Fred!...ohhh, Fred, what have you done to me, Fred?" It was Birdie's voice, all right,
no doubt about that.
"Bertie? What's wrong? Are you sick, baby? Bertie, are you all right?" Fred was now definitely alarmed.
"Ohhh....ohhh lordy, Fred! Why'd you do this to me?" Birdie was becoming distraught.
"Do? Do what, Bertie? Bertie...what's wrong? Tell me, baby, what's wrong?"
"Oh, Fred...I can't get up! I...I'm stuck, Fred! I'm stuck to the seat and I can't get up!"
Fred's jaw dropped open with a look of utter shock on his face. Couldn't get up? Stuck to the seat? Why, that was just plain imposs...
Fred's thoughts froze. The polyurethane varnish! The miracle varnish that dried fast to a hard, water-resistant finish and bonded to any
porous surface! Birdie had bonded herself to the outhouse seat! "Bertie? Hon, can you open the door? Can you unlatch the door and open
"Oh, Fred, I can't move! I tried to get up and nearly yanked my backside off! Fred, I can't reach the latch!" Birdie was starting to
cry, now. Fred had heard her cry only a few times in their long life together, and every time it broke his heart. Only this time it was
worse, because he'd caused it. "Fred, lordy, please help me, Fred!"
"Baby, I'm gonna try and break down the door!" Fred shouted through the crack between the door and the outhouse wall. "You stand back out
of the way!"
"Fred I can't move myself off this seat! How am I gonna stand anywhere!" Birdie hollered. Fred could tell she was really peeved because
she never hollered unless her patience was just about gone.
Fred put his shoulder into the door, but the door barely moved. He tried again, harder this time, and got only a rattle from the latch.
"Fred, hurry! Ohhh...Fred, I wanna get out of here! Hurry, Fred, hurry!" Birdie's cries gave him the extra adrenaline he needed, I
suppose, for the next time he hit the outhouse door as hard as he could and broke the latch. The door swung open, and there was Birdie's
tear-streaked face looking up at him.
Now when Fred got to this part of the story, I admit I had to put my hand to my mouth to keep from smiling at the thought of Aunt Birdie
sitting there in the dark outhouse, varnished solidly to the seat, but when Fred looked down at the only woman he'd ever loved in his whole
life I know there was nothing but anguish on his face.
He grabbed her hand and forearm and said, "Baby, I'll get you up from there!" and at the same time, he lifted.
"OOOHHHHH! Fred, don't! You're pullin' the hide right offa me!" Birdie shrieked. "I'm plumb stuck to this thing, can't you see that? If
I could get loose I'd get up by myself!"
Fred tried a different approach. "Bertie, baby, I'm gonna lift your leg up just a little, to see if we can..."
He never got a chance to finish his sentence, for as soon as he touched her, Birdie wailed again, "Fred don't you move that leg! I've been
stuck here so long both legs have gone to sleep and they're hurtin' me something awful! Oh, Fred, lordy, Fred, do something but don't
touch my legs, Fred!" Birdie had passed right by distraught and peeved and was now approaching panicky and downright mad.
Fred stood there for a moment, not really knowing what to do, just knowing full well what not to do. But once again, crisis situations
bring out the fast thinker in even the slowest of minds, and if this wasn't a crisis situation then Fred had never in his life seen one.
"Bertie, I'm gonna call the doctor! He'll come right out and get you off of that thing! I'm going inside to call and I'll be right back,
baby, you just sit there and I'll be right back!" Where in the world Fred thought Birdie would go is a mystery to me, as it was to Birdie
herself. The look she gave his fast-retreating figure would have killed any other man dead in his tracks, but Fred doubtless had built up
a resistance over the years and ran to the house unscathed. He returned almost breathless after what must have been a five-minute eternity
for Birdie. Then they waited, Birdie firmly seated and Fred gently holding and stroking her hand. There wasn't much to talk about.
Doc Waller's old Chevy rattled over the cattle guard, down the drive, and into the back yard, its headlights aimed directly at the outhouse
and its two occupants. He stepped out, his black bag in his right hand, and walked forward. "Good evenin' Fred...Bertie. I got here just
as soon as I could." Doc Waller had dedicated his life to his patients in the little community and was on call at any hour. I doubt he
ever finished a meal at one sitting. "Bertie, Fred tells me you've got yourself into quite a fix, here. What seems to be the problem?"
The fact that Birdie was sitting in an outhouse with the door open and in the glare of automobile headlights was not lost on Doc Waller, he
just always liked for his patients to have the opportunity to describe their ailments, however obvious they might be to him. He said it
helped them feel a bit more at ease in the examining room.
By now Birdie was exhausted from her ordeal, and her voice was quiet. "Oh, Doc, I'm stuck to the seat. I can't get up and Lord knows how
I've tried but I nearly skinned myself doing it, and my legs have gone to sleep and, ooohhhh, I just want to get inside my own house and
lie down..." Her voice started to trail off into a sob, bless her heart.
Fred explained to Doc Waller how he thought this all came about, how he'd painted the porch and the swing and the outhouse and finally the
outhouse seats with polyurethane varnish he'd got dirt cheap at Rudy's Railroad Salvage, and how Birdie had come in from town and not
knowing any better, poor thing, she'd come out here and before she knew it, why, she was stuck tight as a tick to the fresh varnish. Fred
stopped to catch his breath and the doc just rubbed his jaw with his fingers and nodded slowly, as if he already had a solution to the
problem. "Fred, you have some turpentine? And oil. Any baby oil on the place?"
Fred thought a moment. "Uh..yeah...turpentine, got plenty of turp in the shed, Doc. But, no, no baby oil. Why would we have baby oil?"
That seemed a logical question to him, in spite of a sizable inventory of disposable diapers in the shed. "I've got motor oil, and linseed
oil, and...in the kitchen we've got cooking oil. Won't any of that do?"
The doc pulled off his hat and his coat, and began rolling up his shirtsleeves. "Fred, bring me the turpentine, the cooking oil, and
plenty of cotton rags. Let's get to work, here," Doc replied.
The work was tedious and slow. Doc would pour a little turpentine onto a cloth and dab it on the area where Birdie's anatomy was varnished
to the seat. Birdie would yell as the turpentine stung her abused skin, ashen-faced Fred would hold and pat her hand, saying, "There,
baby, it's comin' loose, everything's gonna be all right, hon," and Doc would swab Birdie and the seat with Wesson Oil to keep her from
sticking again to the still-tacky varnish. It took two hours of dabbing, yelling, patting and swabbing, but at last, Birdie was free.
Fred and Doc helped her to her feet, which prompted more crying as her legs started regaining their natural color and feeling, and helped
her waddle into the house. Doc cleaned Birdie up with soap and water while Fred banged about in the kitchen making her some tea to calm
her nerves. By 10:30 the ordeal was over.
Birdie slept on her stomach for the rest of the week. Fred was contrite, waiting on her hand and foot, never really able to say out loud
how ashamed and sorry he was for what had happened, but by his actions Birdie knew. Her backside healed quickly, thanks to the ointment
Doc Waller had the pharmacy send over, and soon Birdie was sleeping on her back once again. The story remained untold among the three of
them for several years, but finally came out at a family gathering of some sort. It became an instant classic, and had to be told every
Thanksgiving or Fourth of July when we'd all finished that particular holiday's feast, still sinfully full of Birdie's home cooking. Even
after hearing it a dozen times it always made us kids laugh until we hurt. Once Cousin Georgie laughed so hard the Dr. Pepper he was
drinking came out his nose. Uncle Fred would tell the story, and Aunt Birdie would always blush and poke him in the ribs when he got to
the part about "her backside." It seemed to sort of embarrass her for us kids to hear she had one. As I grew older I laughed a little
less, I suppose, but inside...well, inside I felt prouder. These two wonderful people, sharing a lifetime of hard work and memories,
sitting there telling us about it all, laughing at themselves, so much in love with each other. It made me proud to belong to them.
And that's why I just had to laugh out loud in the paint department at Home Depot.
It was while I was recovering from a broken leg I had the bright idea of riding in
a cattle roundup.
A few weeks earlier I was installing a light fixture for my mother-in-law and
literally fell victim to a cheap wooden Walmart stepladder. My foot slipped
forward on the bottom rung and I fell backwards into the kitchen floor. I thought
it was a bad sprain, and I limped around the rest of the afternoon and evening,
but the next morning there was more swelling and unabated pain, so I went to the
ER to have it checked.
"Tibial plateau fracture" was the diagnosis and I was in surgery before lunch. A
six-day hospital stay and $22,000 later I was wheelchaired through TSA and three
airports to get back home with an immobilized, fully extended left leg.
As soon as the local traumatologist would permit I began physical therapy. It sort
of reminded me of my freshman year at TCU on Elmer Brown's student trainer staff,
except this time I was the guy hurting when my leg was flexed more than five
And that's when I decided to sign on for the cattle drive.
It became a combination goal and reward, a measurable desired outcome: able to
spend all day in the saddle by mid-March. I worked and sweated and hurt and came
to appreciate Oxycodone almost as much as morphine. I was driven to be saddle-
ready, and whenever the pain was at its worst I focused on riding again.
A week before I was to fly to Texas the traumatologist said "you're good to go."
My physical therapist said I wasn't. But MD trumps RPT so I flew to Midland-
Odessa and drove to Presidio in a rented car.
The next morning I was introduced to Rojo, a dark bay gelding, my mount for the
roundup. The first day we gathered the longhorn cattle from their winter pasture,
from the rocky hillsides and patches of prickly pear and honey mesquites. There
were some veteran cow-critters with horns an impressive five feet tip-to-tip, some
younger bulls and heifers, and of course a few unbranded calves. We herded them
all to a holding pen where we ate supper and I crawled into a hot roll on the
ground for the night.
The following day we moved the herd to the branding pens at the main ranch
house. Youngsters were vaccinated, tagged and branded, and when they were released
and went bawling back to mama we noted who belonged to whom. I mugged and branded
longhorn calves, the leg was holding up fine.
On the third day we moved the cattle to their summer pasture. There was a caliche
road running through the ranch and the old stock--they'd been through this a few
times before--stuck to the road. But the younger animals, feeling adventurous I
guess, they tended to wander away from the main herd. I'd begun the morning riding
drag on Rojo, the place with the most dust and the worst view. So when I saw two
or three yearlings head off to the right I turned Rojo off the road, kicked him in
the sides a couple of times to convince him, yes, we ARE going through the brush
again, and took off in pursuit.
We caught and turned them back in toward the herd, but to keep them from running
off again Rojo and I now rode flank, through the brush and occasional dry creek
Now Rojo's background was mainly as a trail horse, and he didn't especially like
where I took him. I had to keep him away from the road where he wanted to be with
his cayuse friends. Eventually, though, the reality sunk into his little walnut
brain that I was serous and we actually made a pretty good couple of hands.
I mentioned the dry creek beds. Those were the things Rojo hated most. He'd slide
on his hocks down one bank, then pick up speed to climb up the other. We crossed
three, Rojo straining and sweating but doing an altogether good job of it. And
then we came to the fourth creek bed.
I was relaxed in the saddle, admiring the view and counting my blessings when we
came to the next creek bed, and I felt Rojo's muscles tighten under me. In one brief moment
of cowhand clairvoyance I knew what was going to happen next. I knew Rojo was not
going to slide down one side and scramble up the other. Rojo was going to jump
that creek bed.
In an instant we were airborne, Rojo's hindquarters launching us up and forward,
his forelegs landing us gracefully, safely on the other side. I had no time to
think before it was all over. I reckon I surprised Rojo as well as myself when I
hollered, "Yeehaw, Rojo, let's do that again!"
It was the shortest flight I've ever taken. Also one of the best, the one I'll
remember for always. I looked around, and evidently no one had seen the feat. It
was our secret, Rojo's and mine, a secret shared between a pretty good cow pony
and an old cowboy with a busted leg.
The Guatemala City garbage dump is the largest dump in Central America. About 500 tons of trash are dumped in it each day, and the 11,000 people who live and work in and near the dump rely on that garbage to survive.
Before 2005 anyone could enter and do whatever they needed to do in the garbage dump. Families lived and worked inside the dump. They built makeshift houses and lived in garbage. In 2005 there was a huge methane fire that burned for days, and the government finally came in and made some regulations. They built a wall around the dump and limited who was allowed to work in it. The last count I read was a couple of years ago and about 5,000 work badges had been issued for dump workers.
Each garbage truck is numbered based on where in the city it is coming from. The workers know the numbers of the richer neighborhoods, and fight for those trucks, as they will most likely get more valuable things. The workers use something like an "I call this truck!" system, laying a hand on a truck to claim it; once your hand is on that truck, you have the right to pick through it.
Once the truck dumps its load, people begin to scavenge. They are looking for plastic, aluminum, food and cardboard, and of course anything that they might be able to sell. The men and women (and children over the age of 12, as that is the minimum age for working in the dump) fill industrial sized plastic bags with the various ‘treasures’. When they fill a bag of garbage, they sell it to a middle-man, who then sells it to the recycling companies. For a full bag of plastic, they can make 10-12 quetzales ($1.50), for aluminum and cardboard they get 3 quetzales per pound ($0.40). On average, a full days worth of work, brings in about 40 quetzales, or $5.
A great find is discarded food, particularly from chains like McDonald's and Burger King. The workers will eat the food garbage, bring it home to their families, or sell it. They are able to sell meat to street food cart vendors, who then re-cook it.
At the end of the day, those who have not made their camp for the night in the piles of trash head across the street to their ramshackle huts. Tin and plastic and recycled materials make up the tiny, makeshift homes. The people living here are squatters and can be kicked off the land at any time. The alleyways of the neighborhood don’t look much different from the dump itself: Garbage piled high, street dogs roaming, dirty children running up and down the alleys
A Boston Globe photographer was able to get a pass into the dump a few years ago and published this photo essay on the dump. Worth a look for some amazing and powerful photos of what life is like working as a front-line "recycler."
Now, when he first joined the Navy they sent him up north for some training, but when that was done he was shipping out for some place in the Pacific, and he asked me to come out to San Diego for a couple of days while he was waiting to leave the country. I just had a part-time summer job between semesters so I had a little money saved up and was able to convince my boss to let me take off to see my cousin, "...who's gettin' shipped off to Viet Nam and I'd like to see him one more time before he goes 'cause who knows if he'll ever come home again."
So I head out to San Diego and find a cheap enough motel to stay in and I give Cousin Heroux a call. Well, he was sure enough glad to have family to visit amongst all those strangers on base, and since he had some leave coming we right away started checking out the sights of greater metropolitan San Diego. Oh, we saw museums and parks and a baseball game and just generally looked the part of a pair of yokel tourists, but we were having a good time and didn't really care all that much what the locals thought of us.
We had only a couple of days so on the second night we thought we'd do it up big and go to one of those places he'd heard about from the other sailors, where they had good food and entertainment and a couple of guys could find a little excitement. I don't remember exactly where the place was, but I do remember the name, it was called the Pair-ee Lounge. Well, it sounded French and Heroux was a Cajun so we figured at least he'd be able to read off the menu.
We got there sort of early in the evening, I suppose, because there weren't too many other folks there. I mean, it wasn't empty but there just wasn't a whole houseful there. The lady at that little podium in the front of the place was dressed up all pretty in one of those outfits that was almighty low at the top and uncommonly high at the bottom with barely enough in between to keep her decent.
She took us to a booth and we sat down and started reading the menu, with me studying the prices and wondering if I'd have enough money left to get back home after this fancy supper. After a few minutes the lady who was our waitress came sashaying up the the booth and said something like, "Hi! My name is Mimi and I'm your server tonight. Can a get you boys something from the bar?"
Well I'll tell you, it was right then that two things jumped right out at me: One, this was one of those topless places I'd heard about back in Texas, and two, Mimi must have been the inspiration for the name of this place.
Now, I will admit I'd seen cleavage before, so even though I was surprised I wasn't altogether dumbfounded. But Cousin Heroux, like I said, was still that innocent, naive Louisiana country boy, in spite of that sailor suit he was wearing. When he looked up from the menu at Mimi his eyes got big as half-dollars and his bottom jaw just sort of dropped for a few seconds while his brain tried to process everything. He stuttered and sputtered trying to get words out of his mouth and finally he did.
"Oh, no, Ma'm, we're not in that big of a hurry, you go ahead and finish feedin' your babies!"
That was my first and only adventure in a topless joint.
For years I was dreamin' about gettin' rich by bein' a lottery winner.
But the tickets I bought, they all came to nought while my wallet just kept gettin' thinner.
All I was needin' was one lucky draw and I'd be in fi-nanshul heaven,
But I won no cash when I played Mix and Match and struck out when I played Super 7.
I dreamed how I'd spend my winnin's each day while chasin' wild cows from the thickets,
But I could paper the walls of several dance halls with my worthless torn-up Lotto tickets.
Oh, I was real reg'lar at buyin' them things! Day-dreamin', my riches I'd see!
But I had no luck, I won not one buck from Mega Millions or Midday Pick 3.
I tried playin' Bingo, and Hot Lotto, too, but my luck, it kept gettin' worse
'Til I lost it all on the big Powerball that finally emptied my purse.
And so, I was beat, flat nuthin' I'd won! My ego had taken a bruisin'.
I was near broke, my spurs was in soak, and I was worn out from the losin'.
My dobber was draggin', a failure I felt, guess I wasn't cut out for winnin'!
But after a time a thought come to mind that soon turned my frownin' to grinnin'.
While frettin' and strugglin' to just "strike it rich" I'd forgotten a mighty big part
Of bein' content with the way my life went had something to do with my heart.
Why, Hon, I'm a rich man! I'm rollin' in wealth! My wildest dreams all have come true!
And I've YOU to thank, 'cause I broke the bank of love...when I fell for you!
Christmas Eve mornin' an' I'm stuck way out here
Four hours from town an' holiday cheer.
Cuss my sorry luck! I'm the new hand, I know,
But still, it ain't fair the Boss said I can't go
Into town with the others to celebrate there.
While they're havin' fun, I'm stuck 'way out here.
Oh, I'm not all alone, the coosie came back
From town with supplies. Now he's in his shack
A'stirrin' up somethin' from out of a book.
He's not a bad fella for a cowboy camp cook,
But he's an old hand. Forty-seven next year!
Just too old to mind bein' stuck 'way out here.
Well, grumblin' won't make the day any more fun
An' I've got a full day of chores to get done.
First feed the stock then break up the ice
That froze in th' troughs and buckets last night.
My pards drink hot cider and sing "Deck the Halls"
While I'm stuck 'way out here muckin' out stalls.
Oh, I knew what I's doin', signin' on as a hand,
A cowpuncher's life, it ain't always grand.
You ride early 'til late mos' ever durned day,
An' work hot, tired and dirty. You sure earn your pay!
You feel ev'ry emotion, joy, anger an' fear.
They're part of the job when you live 'way out here.
That old round pen gate is creakin' an' draggin',
Another half-hour an' I'll quit it from saggin'.
I scoop grain for the hosses from out of a sack,
Then traipse back to the stable to mend some old tack.
How long has it been? I guess nearly a year
I signed on to cowboy an' live 'way out here.
The stable's all quiet, an' I start reminiscin'
'Bout all of the good things I think I've been missin'.
But after a spell feelin' sorry for me
My thoughts turn to all of them things I'd not see,
Like a just-borned new foal, or that big herd of deer,
If I lived in town an' not 'way out here.
My hoss stamps his foot. I stand...stretch...and then
I give him a carrot from out of the bin.
I glance out the window at the sun's fadin' glow
An' think of a stable twenty centuries ago.
A new ma an’ pa, and a Babe lyin' there.
They tell He left heaven to live 'way down here.
Why, the cowboy church preacher said that He did
As he told us a story I'd heard as a kid,
Of a king who was born just as common as me,
Who followed a trail that led to a tree,
An' now sits by the Father, in heaven somewhere,
To give life forever to sinners down here.
Christmas Eve in a stable, guess there's no better place
To think about life, and God's lovin' grace.
An' then I feel growin' a glow in my chest
As it dawns on me just how much I've been blessed
To be warmed by His sun and to breathe His clean air
He don't make for the city...but for just 'way out here.
While my pards take in the sights of the town
I've got all of Creation, if I just look around.
They're eatin' stuffed turkey and pie with ice cream,
But I've got Coosie's good biscuits and bacon and beans.
I add up my blessin's and feel downright cheered.
Maybe life ain't so bad after all 'way out here.
©H R Chafin, 2013, 2015
For those of you who will be there--and, I suppose, for those who can't--I hope these words will be a reminder of good times and good friends in a mighty fine place to call home.
A word about cowboy poetry for those not familiar with the genre. It's based on sound and rhythm, not on literary form. It came into being through men and women who enjoyed hearing and telling stories, sharing them orally a long time before the first cowboy poem was ever written down. So let me give you a hint, here. Try reading it aloud...I think pretty soon you'll catch the rhyme and meter. It ain't rocket surgery, after all.
Fort Worth, Texas
From the painted warrior roaming the Comanche territory, to the soldier to the roughneck to the cowboy at his best,
All of those and many others combine to tell the story of an Army camp established where the East became the West.
It was founded when the Lone Star (which before had been a nation) was sewn into the Stars and Stripes as number twenty-eight
And became a treaty's reference point (its reason for creation) to make a peace between the white and red men of the State.
When the Army fort was shuttered the settlers kept arriving, some to start new businesses while others turned a hand
To sowing and to reaping, and soon the place was thriving with five hundred hardy Texans deeply rooted in the land.
The populace decided that the place should be a city, since by now it had a doctor and a school and one hotel,
And so Fort Worth was chartered, a town both prim and gritty, with a bank, a pair of churches and a Half-Acre of Hell.
It became a stop where cowboys, pushing wild, fresh-branded cattle to the shipping points in Kansas farther up the Chisholm Trail,
Paused for entertainment and to step down from the saddle. And so it was for years until the coming of the rail.
The Texas & Pacific made Fort Worth a destination. No longer would the longhorns pause to water, then to drift
Again towards the prairies, up across the Indian Nation, but now were herded into holding pens of Armour and of Swift.
When war swept over Europe the battle bugles sounded. Canadians, Americans, we housed their soldiers here
At places like Camp Bowie. Prosperity abounded. And when that war was ended there were discovered near
The oil fields of West Texas. Refineries and pipelines were built to fuel a nation. Fort Worth, she rode the swell
Of Texas' black gold riches and soon became the lifeline for landmen and investors at the old Westbrook Hotel.
In spite of the Depression, Fort Worth remained a center for banking, oil and cattle. Her population grew.
She prospered with West Texas, right up until that winter when America was forced to enter World War Number Two.
The land awoke for warfare, and Fort Worth was not caught dozing. There was no toleration of Hitler's hateful rant
And that was met with action, with hard work, never closing the production at Consolidated-Vultee's "bomber plant."
The challenges of peacetime! Cowtown rose to the occasion, building man-made lakes and highways, airports, neighborhoods and schools,
Her commitment to advancment and to higher education are virtues she wears proudly as a queen would wear her jewels.
She is modern, she is cultured, with a friendly disposition the most typical of Texas of any place you'll find.
Still where the West commences, not ashamed of that tradition, she'll steal your heart and soon she'll forever cross your mind.
She wears suits made by Armani and boots from Leddy Brothers. She dresses up in purple from downtown to Trinity.
She's the pride of those who love her and the envy of most others. If Fort Worth isn't perfect she's close enough for me.
But on truly special occasions he’d make up some extra biscuit dough and roll about a biscuit's worth flat and thin on a floured board, and drop a spoonful or two of stewed, sweetened dried fruit onto one half or the other of the circle. Then he’d fold the other half over the fruit, and seal the round edge with a fork or his fingers, whichever was handier, and drop the little half moons of raw dough into about two inches of hot fat. He’d keep an eye on things for a couple of minutes, then one flip with a fork, another couple of minutes’ worth of watch care, and then he'd remove those golden-brown little pies to some spread-out newspapers to cool. I swan, there’s nothing I’ve ever tasted better than a still-warm fried pie and a tin cup of hot, blacker-than-sin coffee.
My favorite recollection of coosie's fried pie cookery is one day in early fall when Toy Raynor and I were surveying the grass that was still green from the late August rains and making note where Mr. Ehrlecher’s cattle had scattered. Somehow those critters sensed the fall roundup was getting close, and took it upon themselves to make sure we all earned our fall wages by scattering themselves from here to yonder and back, so’s that every hand had to ride harder and longer than any other time of the year, except, of course, for the spring roundup. We had left the camp just after daybreak and had ridden all morning northwest and up into some of the most rugged parts of the ranch. This was sure enough Paradise for me. Toy and I rode at our own pace, stopping from time to time to let our horses blow while Toy rolled and smoked a cigarette. I was happy just to wait for one of his stories or to learn from the old cowboy as he taught me to judge how many head the grama would graze or to understand how cows thought and therefore figure where they could be found.
Well, on this particular day we expected to be riding all day and not get back to the wagon until the job was done or the sun had set, whichever came first. So coosie had packed us a lunch for our nooning. We weren’t in any special hurry to eat, since we'd fed ourselves pretty well at morning chuck, but when it was a little past noon we came to a slope with above-average grass and decided to stop, and give our horses and ourselves a chance to graze and rest. The slope slanted downward to the northeast and overlooked a wide valley that stretched north toward an upthrust of rust- and yellow-colored rock. The sky was as clear as spring water. There was a right nice breeze blowing in from Mexico down to the southwest. We could hear the cry of a red-tailed hawk somewhere off in the distance. The sight and the moment were just plain inspiring, even for a kid who saw this kind of scenery almost every day.
I loosened the cinches and removed the bits while Toy built a hatful of fire. I pulled the rolled-up horse blankets from behind our saddles and spread them on the ground. Toy already had unpacked the saddlebags with our lunch and the coffee pot. Coffee was making. We began to unwrap our two lunches—newspapers wrapped around a tea towel which was wrapped around two slices of sourdough bread with fried meat between them, a carrot, an apple, and in another, smaller towel, two fried pies. Toy looked at me, I looked at Toy, and he just grinned and said, "He went all out today, didn't he?" We sat in partial shade and ate our meat and bread. I got up walked over to the horses. Mine got the carrot, I never did like those things much, and I finished the apple. By then coffee was made. Toy pulled two tin cups out of the saddlebags and poured. It was time for dessert.
Now, you might not believe me when I tell you no king, no maharajah, no pharaoh of the richest kingdom on Earth has ever had any dessert tastier or any better than those fried apricot pies coosie packed for us, but I swear to you it's the truth. The filling was thick and sweet. The crust was browned just right, the edges were sealed so no filling oozed out until you bit into it, and the pies were still nice and warm after their 6-hour ride behind Toy's saddle. The coffee was hot, and no one ever accused Toy Raynor of using too much water in a pot of coffee.
We took our time eating our pies, enjoying every bite, quiet, not wanting to say any word that might break the spell of that moment. The red-tailed hawk, some cicadas and two grazing horses provided our noonday conversation. Coosie's fried pies provided everything else we needed.
It's been more years than I care to count since that day, but whenever I ride out in the fall of the year the memory is as fresh as if it was yesterday. I can almost taste that sweet apricot filling and the fried biscuit dough crust. I catch myself sniffing the air, hoping for that dusty, smoky smell of horses and men working cattle. Toy and coosie…both gone, now I reckon. They were "old men" when I was still a kid, and now I'm their age or more.
No such thing as bad pie, I suppose, but an apricot fried pie—and a memory of a good horse and a good friend—that’s unreservedly the best there ever was or likely will be.
His daughter Ana ran to tell me the news as my pickup rattled into the wide spot in the dirt road the people who lived there called Galeras. It isn't a town, not even a village, just a collection of houses that had to be built somewhere, and for unknown reasons they were built here. A tiny place, a hard place, a lonely place. Forty-five minutes of gravel, dirt and potholes to the nearest paved road. Water runs down from natural springs higher up in the hills, through plastic pipes and hoses put there by CARE in an attempt to give the people something they could call potable water. There isn't any electricity, except for the generator at Ruperto's house where I spent most weekends. Folks here are farmers, raising corn and pigs and children, all considered essential for a reasonably long and marginally prosperous life in rural Honduras. Juan had a small farm with dismal looking corn, five children, and a two-room adobe house with a clay tile roof. That's where I met Juan, where we became friends, under his roof.
For some reason we hit it off from the beginning. I'd get to Ruperto's house about three in the afternoon, drop off my backpack, and begin my ritual walk around Galeras, talking with people and generally looking out of place, the only person within miles with more than just a hint of European genes. One afternoon I met Juan. He invited me in for coffee, and we talked about politics, crops, the weather, his family, his life...the things that men with more empty hours than hopes talk about. We passed whole afternoons together. If times were good he'd ask his wife to bring us tortillas and fresh cheese, or some tamales she'd made from corn masa and mysterious pieces of meat. We'd sit and talk until dark, then he'd light the homemade lamp, an old brake fluid can half-filled with kerosene and a strip of cloth for a wick. The flickering orange light it provided was only slightly brighter than the darkness around us, but in it I could see Juan, surrounded by all his worldly goods, his face lined from days in the sun, his eyes alive with friendship. Now he was in prison. He was my friend. I went to see him.
The prison was at Yuscarán. Forty-five minutes back to the highway, another half-hour to the turnoff, then thirty minutes of dust and gravel and I was there. A gold mine birthed the town in colonial times but that played out, and now the main sources of employment were the distillery, a few unimportant government offices and the prison. I presented myself to the guard, and asked if I could visit a prisoner. A full body search later I entered Juan's new world. There was a large central patio of sandal-packed dirt. Surrounding the patio were cells built for ten and holding thirty. I looked for Juan and found him in his usual T-shirt, brown pants and sweat-stained straw hat. Vacant brown eyes came alive when he saw me. We didn't shake hands, Juan grabbed me and hugged me, a manly Latin abrazo. I hugged back. He was embarrassed to be in prison, but, life is that way, isn't it? A man struggles just to make a living for himself and his family, then celebrates the sale of a good corn crop with a bottle of aguardiente and...his shrug spoke eloquently.
"Please, let's find some shade," he said, and we headed towards a wall. On the way we passed an inmate selling bananas. Juan reached into his pocket, pulled out ten centavos, and bought two bananas. He smiled and gave me one. It was almost too precious a gift to eat. We squatted in the shade, sitting on our heels, our backs leaning against the wall. We talked, not looking at each other because of his shame. Yes, he was doing fine, but missed his family. Yes, he had enough money to buy extra food to supplement the prison's meager rations, but...well...he needed money to pay a fine. Or a lawyer, I was never really sure which, but it didn't matter. He needed $100. A pair of shoes to me, but freedom to him. Would I please give the money to Ana, and she'd make certain the legal expenses were paid, and he'd pay me back a little at a time until the debt was cancelled? Certainly. Within ten days Juan was home with his family.
Juan was a prisoner who could be set free because he was held behind walls of concrete and bars of iron. Galeras held other prisoners not so easily given their freedom. Prisoners of ignorance, of tradition, of poverty. Most are there still, only a very few have been set free.
Anyway, they were kind-hearted, church-going folks who rarely missed a service at the little chapel a short ways from their place. It was a bi-denominational church since no one congregation could afford a full-time pastor, so they'd have a Methodist circuit preacher every other Sunday, and a Baptist circuit preacher on the in-between Sundays. I'm not sure if it would have qualified as ecumenialism or religious diversity, but it worked for that little band of Christians and provided the spiritual nurture and comfort they needed.
One particular Sunday morning "Granny D," as we called her, wasn't feeling very good. She'd had some stomach pains for a couple of days and the
Hostetter's Stomach Bitters she always relied on for relief just didn't seem to be helping her ongoing discomfort. But she was a loyal Methodist and that
Sunday was the Methodist preacher's turn to hold services so she put on her go-to-meetin' best and she and Gran'pa drove down to the church house.
Country church services are not known for their brevity. There was a Bible lesson, some hymn-singing, a testimony or two, a thorough and in-depth
discussion of the community's prayer requests, a love offering for the preacher, and of course a sermon exhorting the listeners to continue trodding the
narrow path of faith, repentance and good works.
Now about halfway through the service Granny D's discomfort was pretty obvious. She was squirming and fidgiting in the pew, trying to find a position that would quell the complaints her stomach was making. Finally she seemed to find some relief, and leaned over to Gran'pa and whispered to him, "I'm feeling a little better, now. I just let go a long, silent fart so I'll be okay 'til I can get back home and take another dose of bitters."
Gran'pa leaned over and replied, "And after you take that medicine, Hon, I think you need to check the battery in your hearing aid."
I never took to life up North--I always thought it best
To stay close to the desert-lands and prairies 'way out West.
That country where the Yankees dwell, it just ain't what it seems.
Why, it's so cold and dark up there, and filled with empty dreams!
An’ th’ places that I’ve been out East, where our country was begun,
Are filled with buildin’s reachin’ up so high they block the sun
From shinin’ down upon the Earth! An’ I’ve no idea why
A man would chose to live where bricks and mortar hide th’ sky.
I’ve been down South and liked it some, but I could never stay
Where ghosts of soldiers long since gone still march in blue and gray.
An’ though I’m sorta partial to fried catfish, grits, an’ greens,
That grub don’t hold a candle to coosie’s beef an’ beans.
I s’pose I’m meant to live out where the country’s big and wide,
Out where a man can search for th’ horizon’s other side.
An’ if I ever find that place, why I’ll forever stay
Where I can see the mountains, without no city in the way.
But Darlin', I been thinking hard, and come to realize
It's more important who I’m with beneath some place's skies.
That's why I think that any place on Earth could be right fair
An' be exactly right for me...as long as you are there.
The origins of la quema del diablo can be traced to colonial times when it was commonplace for people to light lanterns or, for those with lesser means, bonfires outside their homes to celebrate special occasions. At the Santo Domingo monastery in Antigua, it became an annual tradition to burn a figure of the devil and light firecrackers on the Day of the Rosary in late October. As local priests began to put more emphasis on the Virgin’s triumph over evil, the celebration was pushed back to December to coincide with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Many believed that the devil lurked in the home, crouching behind furniture, tucked under the bed, or concealed in piles of rubbish. To cleanse their homes of evil on the night before the feast, Guatemalans would sweep out their homes and burn their trash on the eve of the feast.
In Zone 1, the historic center of Guatemala City, vendors walk the streets selling devil horns, piñatas in the traditional horns-and-tail form of the devil and firecrackers as crowds (many of whom are dressed as devils themselves) make their way along Sexta Avenida, stopping on side streets to add scraps of paper to bonfires as they pass. Many continue on to Central Park, with its baroque cathedral and National Palace, to watch fireworks explode in the night sky.
I post this about 90 minutes after the event. The sounds of fireworks have abated but the smell of burned gunpowder and paper still floats through my open window. And in all probability, the devil still lurks about, unscathed.
It was that summer I rode for the Ehrlechers, and the boss gave me four horses to ride and to look after. Bonnie was one of them. Bonnie Bluebelle was her actual name but she was just Bonnie, my sweet little mare. She’d come to the Ehrlecher spread from a dude ranch in Fort Davis, and although she wasn’t exactly a young lady she was still spry enough to chase a cow critter through the brush and generally catch it. Bonnie was about half quarter horse and half a mixture of who knows what else, and she wasn’t all that special just to look at her but she did have the biggest, prettiest eyes I’d ever seen in a horse. Intelligent eyes, like she really understood what was said to her and being done around her.
Now Old Man Ehrlecher was a horse man from the old school. He wasn’t much of a fan of pedigrees and bloodlines, but he had a way of studying an animal, of watching it work just a little, and knowing if it would make a using horse or not. He was fond of horses, not as pets, but almost the same way he’d value a good hand who was a steady worker. He’d always treat horses and men right if they did their jobs.
That’s why he insisted every riding hand have his own string and be accountable for taking care of every mount as if it were his own. So I rode and looked after four horses that summer, but little Bonnie became my favorite.
Now she wasn’t always a lady, mind you. She had a female’s way of surprising me now and again, and sometimes she’d act out in some stubborn, hard-headed way that’d aggravate me for a spell, but we always worked out our differences and got to be good working companions.
If you depend on your horse to get the job done you care for it, just as you would your other tools of the trade. You don’t just ride in at the end of the day, strip off the tack and turn your horse into the pen or pasture, you check to make sure it hasn’t picked up a cut or a scrape that goes untreated, you dry it off if it’s wet or sweaty, you wash off the mud, you get the burrs and such out of its tail…you take care of it. I learned how to take care of my horses, and Bonnie became sort of a mentor to me.
You see, I learned some valuable lessons from Bonnie, things that made me a better hand for Mr. Ehrlecher and things that helped me understand a little more about people and dealing with people. Like I said, she wasn’t always a lady. One day early in the summer I was getting her ready to turn her out into the pasture for the night when I guess I surprised her by walking up to her right hindquarter sort of unannounced, and she cow-kicked me right above my left knee. Oh, it did hurt something fierce, but I just sort of leaned against her until I could move without favoring my leg so much it’d be obvious to the others. She stood there patiently, turning her head back and looking at me like she was saying, “OK, cowboy, what did that teach you?” And after giving it some thought there was something valuable to learn from that kick.
In my hurry to get Bonnie (and later myself) cleaned up in time for me to go in for supper I’d neglected to let her know I was there, nearby. So when I sort of came out of nowhere as far a she could tell, I was one of those two kinds of things that spook a horse: I was something that moved. She taught me to stay close to the horse I was working with, to let it hear my calm voice, to lay a hand on it to let it know where I was when close by. So I learned to stay close, to keep a hand on Bonnie and any other horse I was working with as I moved around, and to let it learn my voice. They’d hear my voice, and as I moved aft of the withers I’d give a touch or a pat, and on those occasions I walked behind them (never an especially bright thing for a cowboy to do but sometimes it was the shortest way to get to where I needed to be) I’d drag my hand across the hindquarters just so they’d know it was me and not a horse-eater coming around their other side. I ran out of things to say pretty soon so I sang to the horses as I worked with them, especially to Bonnie.
My Bonnie chases after the cattle,
She’ll cut ‘em when I give her her head.
My Bonnie’s the best dog-gone cowhorse
That was ever on the Ehrlecher spread.
Well, I never claimed it was a good song, or that I had a singing voice worth listening to, but it was my song for my little mare and she never complained.
And that experience with my string, it taught me about working with people, especially later in my life when I was accountable for others and the work they did. I learned to treat people with the same kind of consideration I’d give a good work horse. After a difficult day or the end of a demanding project you take care of your people before you take care of yourself. And you always let them know you’re nearby, not always as the boss but as a work companion. You don’t pop up out of nowhere and you keep your voice calm even when you don’t feel that way inside. I don’t recommend giving folks a pat on the hindquarters, but some kind of touch can do wonders—a handshake, a real pat on the shoulder, or a phone call or a Snickers bar in the break room. You let people know you’re there and you care and most likely you won’t get cow-kicked.
The summer passed quickly and I went back to school. The months and the years flowed past, a slow but unstoppable river of time. Even though I didn’t want to I sort of lost touch with that time in my life. The memories were still there in my mind but neglected. Life had acquired a way of taking up so much of my present that I didn’t seem to have much time left for enjoying the past, like I should have.
It was about six or seven years later when I moved back to that part of Texas and I enjoyed catching up on things with friends and former neighbors. Old Man Ehrlecher had retired and his daughter and son-in-law were doing a good job of running the ranch. I was visiting with them over coffee one day when in a pause in our talk Sasha said, “The vet was out at the ranch last week and told us Bonnie’s condition is deteriorating. He said it’s about time to put her down.” Her words stunned me. I knew Bonnie was getting along in years, but… I was speechless for a moment, trying to loosen the grip of that hard, icy hand around my heart. “He diagnosed her a few months ago with HYPP. I guess she has just enough quarter horse in her to make her susceptible.” That cold hand was still there, and it felt like there was something inside me about to break.
“There’s no cure for that, is there?” I croaked out, already knowing the answer.
Sasha just shook her head slowly. “Katie’s brokenhearted. She learned to ride on Bonnie, after we took her out of the working herd. How do you explain something like this to a seven-year old?” I didn’t have an answer. I couldn’t even explain it to myself.
It was about ten days later when Karl, Sasha’s husband, called me. “Doc’s coming out this afternoon. It’s time.” I thanked Karl for his call, and I really meant it. Most folks don’t understand the feelings that were aching inside me right then, but horse people do, and the rest won’t “get it” so I won’t even try to explain. I made some excuse or another to take off from work and drove out to the Ehrlecher ranch.
I got there ahead of the vet so I had a while to talk with Karl and to go see Bonnie. I could tell she wasn’t right, the way she sort of swayed, a mite unsteady on her feet as she stood in the round pen. They had a worn stable sheet draped over her but I could see she looked tired, almost frail, and I figured it must be the ravages of the disease that was taking her away. In a way I guess it was a good thing for me to see her like this…it made it easier to understand and deal with what needed to be done. She was too good a little lady to let her linger like this.
Karl led her out of the round pen, the vet and I following close behind. She moved along painfully, hooves shuffling in the dust, a slightly stumbling step every dozen feet or so. My throat tightened and began to ache. We walked, oh, a couple hundred yards from the round pen to a flat area where some creosote bushes and a few scrub honey mesquites punctuated the flat ground. Karl had already prepared Bonnie’s resting place with a backhoe, a shadowy slit in the earth with one narrow end sloped downward where she’d be led. Bonnie backed down the slope as Karl guided her, her beautiful eyes wide and alert, but still gentle and trusting. Doc moved to her side and I stood just forward of her withers, my hand clutching her mane, the ache in my throat almost unbearable. I didn’t see Doc give the injections, and there was no outward sign from Bonnie of any pain or fear. She stood there a few minutes, waiting patiently. I pressed my cheek against her neck, held tightly to her mane, and as best as I could I hummed our little song to her as I felt her grow unsteady and then slowly collapse almost on her left side, settling down for her final sleep. The vet checked for a heartbeat, examined her eye for any pupil dilation, then stood and nodded to Karl and me. It was over.
I looked down at my little mare then reached for the stable sheet that was still draped over her. I pulled it up to cover her head. I just couldn’t bear the thought of dirt falling directly into her face. Yeah, I know, I’m overly-sentimental. So sue me.
I began the long and lonely walk back to the pens and my truck. Doc stayed to talk with Karl who started the backhoe. I guess in part to cover the noise of that machine as it finished its hateful work, but in greater part to try to beckon some of those beautiful but neglected memories I’d let lie for too long, I heard what could barely pass as my voice singing.
Bring back…bring back…bring back my Bonnie to me….
The clock used to belong to a bank, which donated it to a church. One of the church members, a man then in his late 50's, told me he remembered carrying the clock in a small parade from the old church building to the new one in 1907 when he was a boy of 10. The clock hung in the church parlor, then the office, and finally, with the passage of time and the advent of modern clocks that relied on electricity instead of springs, it was relegated to the church kitchen, near the stove. There it hung for years, essentially neglected except for being wound every Sunday by the ladies who made coffee and served donuts to the church members. But at last the rigors of steam and dust and neglect took their toll. The clock stopped running and was discarded. Another boy, about 10 years old, found it in the trash can and retrieved it. That's when I became its owner and protector.
I took the clock home and opened up its wooden case. Inside I found wheels and springs and gears coated with the grease and dirt that had accumulated over the years. I carefully removed the mechanism and soaked it overnight in a coffee can half-filled with gasoline. I brushed and cleaned the debris away from the moving parts, then oiled them. When the mechanism was back in the case I sat the clock upright, pushed the pendulum, and hoped for the best. The clock began to tick! I adjusted the weight until the clock kept accurate time, which, I found, it could do with amazing accuracy! It then took its place on the wall in my room, marching into the future to the soft, steady sound of its own ticking. Even today it's capable of keeping perfect time, now that its heart is whole again.
My clock has taught me a little about life. Its history has several lessons for me. For example, what starts out as a joyful experience can turn into rather a tasteless life of doing my job, unnoticed and unappreciated. I may have a place of honor today, but a lesser role tomorrow, and perhaps even an ignoble place of service the day after. But in every moment it's still my responsibility to perform the role given me, with all the faithfulness I have, for as long as I'm able. I've also learned that sometimes we discard what is useful because we're unwilling or unable to restore it to service. We do that with clocks and computers and boots and...with people. Isn't it just less trying to give up on a friend who's disappointed us? Can't we avoid more heartache if we simply walk away from a relationship that no longer meets our needs? It is, and we can, but perhaps in so doing we've left another person in the trashcan, where they wait to be collected and disposed of for good. How much better it is to reach out, to reconcile, to restore. We don't have the power to give life, but we are capable of adding to its flavor and usefulness, if we only make the attempt. Finally, I've learned that there are some repairs I cannot make by myself. I need help, expert help from others. Somewhere, there's someone who understands my condition and knows how to make me right again so I can continue into the future, like my clock.
Each one of us serves our purpose, fulfilling our role with some degree of faithfulness. We tire, we accumulate debris that slows us down and makes us less effective. We change jobs or homes or partners, but the things that impede us remain inside, clogging up our mechanism, troubling our heart. One day we find ourselves at the point of being discarded as no longer useful to anyone. I think at that point we need a new owner and protector. I know this sounds foolish to some, but I firmly believe this is exactly the point where God is willing to intervene, to become that person to us. He will take us out of the trash can, clean out the debris, replace the parts that have broken, and give us the push we need to start ticking again.
My clock is back home where it belongs, marking its life and mine, teaching me about life with each soft and familiar tick.
What Started It All Again...and Again It Still Happens
Few people know me more than just superficially. I rarely but occasionally let folks see what's 'way down inside. "Wild Horses of Alberta" comes from that part of me few people see. If you understand the poem you'll know me a little bit better.
Wild Horses of Alberta
They live out on the prairie of Alberta, west of Sundre,
The remnants of a mighty band that once ruled all the plains,
Foaled by sturdy mustang mares and sired by Spanish stallions,
Fed by the dancing prairie grass and bathed by blowing rains.
They live like those before them, never counting days or centuries.
Their flying, fleeting silhouettes crossing Parker Ridge
Make a rare breathtaking vision and a memory forever.
Between today and yesterday, a brave and noble bridge.
Wild horses, wild horses of Alberta.
They've survived the cougar and escaped the ropes of man.
They belong to no one
But their lives are linked to ours.
Will we let them perish by a cruel and hateful hand?
Each one a thing of beauty and a marvel of creation,
They move with grace and wary eyes, coats shining in the sun.
A single herd is left, now, where once they were a thousand.
Such strong and savage beauty, with no place left to run.
Wild horses, wild horses of Alberta.
Their hot breath turns to snow clouds in the cold Alberta dawn.
They belong to no one
But their lives are linked to mine
And I know a part of me will die the day the last one's gone.
We had an old Airstream trailer where we slept, out in the middle of nowhere, too far from town to make it worth riding or driving in. The cook had a tent and a wagon where meals were prepared. After a long day in the saddle we'd wash off in the stock tank, have supper, and then entertain one another with stories--some of them were even true.
There was one story told by another hand, Sixto (his last name I don't recall) that he swore was true. I must’ve heard him tell it at least a half-dozen times that summer and it was always the same. Some of the other cowhands scoffed, but he swore it was true.
I've taken the liberty of putting it in first person, the way I heard it from Sixto, and I think I've got most of it right as to dialogue. I know the facts are just as he told them back then. Once in a while I've added a comment in [ ] to explain something a little better that he didn't originally tell, since we all knew back then what he was talking about.
It was in '53 when I was working for the sheriff's department down in Presidio. I was a new deputy in the department, and Sheriff Race was my boss. [Race Harland, known as "Sheriff Race" to most of the people in the county] I had night duty, and that meant I just drove around to see if there was trouble out on the roads. Kids would buy cheap wine or tequila over in “the O’ [Ojinaga, a Mexican town just across the border from Presidio] and raise hell in their daddy's car. Sometimes there'd be some bad wrecks, but usually just a car with drunk kids that run through a fence.
One particular Friday night in late October I was over on 67 [state highway 67, between Presidio and Marfa] when I saw this old yellow school bus chugging down the grade from Marfa. I pulled up alongside and saw a bunch of kids in the bus and they looked like football players because I could see some standing and talking with football jerseys on. The bus had "Shafter ISD" painted on the side. Like I said, it was an old-looking bus. I followed it for a while, mostly because I had nothing else to do but then I wondered if it was going to make it up the next hill. After a while I passed and waved at the driver and went on towards town.
A few days later I was in Shafter and stopped at a gas station for coffee and to stretch my legs. Just making conversation I asked the kid at the station about the high school football team, if they were having a good season. He shrugged and said "They used to have a six-man team here but not in a few years, I don't think." That puzzled me but not much since that old school bus could have been sold to another district and never painted so it could have been some other team I saw. But after I finished my coffee I went over to the school just to see, since I was curious and being curious is part of a deputy's job.
I walked around but didn't see any school bus even though classes were going on. The whole school didn't have more than about 80 students, brought in from the ranches and a few who lived right there in Shafter. After a while I saw an old guy painting and stopped to kill some time with him and just be known around town. When I asked him about the football team he said "Who told you there was any football team here?" I told him I'd seen the team on the bus just a couple of weekends before. He stopped painting and gave me a real funny look. "Deputy, we ain't had no team here in years, ever since the accident." About that time I felt this kind of chill run up my back.
He told me back in 1948 there was a six-man high school team that played some of the other little schools around, like Marathon and Fort Davis and Valentine, but that was the last year. He told me about the accident.
The Shafter team was returning home from a game in the school bus, getting close to home out on 67. The best anyone figures they topped a hill and began the downgrade, but something must have happened to the brakes or the steering because at the big curve right where 67 crossed Cibola Creek at the edge of town the bus went off the road and down a drop off into the dry creek bed. Every one of them was killed.
Sixto went on about checking the accident records in the Sheriff's office and he found the accident report, but he never told anyone who worked there what he'd seen because he feared losing his job or at least being laughed at. Only after he quit the department and started cowboying again did he feel he could talk about his experience, and then only to men he trusted not to call him a liar or a lunatic. After hearing his story and seeing the look in his eyes as he told it, I couldn’t call him either one.
Most blogs seem to have a purpose, a theme, or a cause. So how about FrogAblog? What prompted its creation? What will be its raison d'être? Beats me, folks, I don't know. I'm not an accomplished writer and don't pretend to be, I just occasionally think of stuff and sometimes write it down. My life isn't exactly without direction, but neither is there some grand and noble purpose driving me every waking hour, my thoughts just seem to come and go and might include my personal experiences, flights of imagination, observations, truths, lies, words that rhyme and words that don't.
So, will FrogAblog be fact or fiction? Prose or poetry? A fortnightly feature or an occasional outburst? [There's no way this will be a regularly-scheduled blog, I just like that word "fortnightly."] Humorous or serious? Passionate or cold? Purposeful or pointless? Worthwhile reading or a waste of the reader's time? Analytical and objective or emotional and personal?