Saturday, January 31, 2009

Remembering a Friend

I saw a dog in town today that reminded of a pet I had many years ago. His name was Charlie, the dearest pet I ever shared a slice of my life with. He was named after Prince Charles of England because the man's name was all over the news that summer. He had just wed Diana Spencer. I picked him in July of 1981 from a litter of puppies his mother, Fea (fāy'-ah), delivered in my dad's garage. Fea was a small gentle mutt that used to let kittens suckle on her. She was a dear pet at the ranch for many years. I believe my kid brother gave her the name back in the 70s. It is Spanish for ugly. His father was a very spirited short-haired long-legged mongrel named Rex that belonged to Richard Shimer, a long time ranch employee. After many good and memorable years of service Charlie was laid to rest on May 15, 1991 under a small mesquite tree two-hundred feet from where he was born. I still miss my friend.

Some time back I came across this tribute to a dog delivered by a fellow named George Graham Vest. As the story goes, he was an attorney in a small Missouri town in 1870 when he delivered this tribute in court while representing a man who sued another for the killing his pet dog. When his turn came during the trial to present a summation to the jury, he made the following speech and won the case. He was later elected U.S. Senator from Missouri in 1879 and served in that capacity until 1903.

The tribute...

"Gentlemen of the Jury: "The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog."

"Gentleman of the Jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that encounters the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens."

"If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. When the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death."

Charlie sleeping in the sun.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Answered Prayer

Today marked the end of my fourth work week in the real world. After clocking out I stepped out my work place into the warm afternoon sun and thanked God for answered prayer. Work was not going to follow me home like it used to in my old life. Minutes before I had stacked it neatly next to my keyboard and it would be there when I got back to it on Monday morning. The weekend was all mine with the promise of no "Sunday Blahs" before the new work week began. I would be happy to get up on Monday morning.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Room to Grow

The Admin offices at N.S.C.L. will soon have some much-needed breathing room. Cramped quarters are to be a thing of the past in a few weeks. The present occupants are happy campers.

Presently, six people work in this 12 by 60 foot sardine can. It is a technology top-notch facility with all the creature comforts, but woefully small.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Those Days Are Gone

People in town used to take comfort knowing they did not have to lock their doors, day or night. Those days are long gone. They belong to another time and another kind of people. The string of burglaries here in the last few months has drawn the interest of area newscasters, broadcasting our troubles to the rest of the world. That is sad. These days it is the thief who rules the night. It is the thief who steals our peace of mind when we leave our homes to go to our honest work. Damn these rats. Damn them all.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


There are too many rats breaking into homes here in town. We have to take high tech measures to protect the home.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Motor Mouse

The engine compartment has mouse droppings everywhere.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Haircut

The world's best strands of human hair grow out of Melba's scalp.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Priest

I was there to pay my respects to the family in their time of personal loss. Naturally, the mood was somber, but just as the family was approaching the burial site ahead of the pallbearers, the priest noticed me standing in the small crowd and started blabbing loudly about Japan and its culture. I was embarrassed.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Shirts for Work

My employers are great people. The office crew is outfitted in smart-looking uniformed shirts. That's company pride in action.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

His Guardian Angel

This tech was driving over to where I work to deliver a PC that had been repaired in their shop in Laredo. The PC never made it, nor did the truck it was loaded in. The driver escaped with his life only by the Grace of God. His guardian angel was riding shotgun that day.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Dead of Winter?

This is the 10-day forecast for Benavides, a South Texas community in the dead of winter. The town may be in rough shape, but the weather is ideal.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

God Help Us

Obama is the President of the United States of America. Dear God in Heaven please do not abandon us now.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Just A Regular Day

Except for the post office and bank closures on this federal holiday, it was business as usual in Benavides, Texas today.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Settled In

The wife and I are pretty much settled into our new digs. We have a home now and all is well.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Coffee in the Morning

I set up a coffee maker in the office and we went from two coffee drinkers to four. It smells like a Starbucks in the morning. Coffee! Got to have it!

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Farewell to Arms

I've been so busy with this new life that I cannot seem to carve out time in my routine for reading. I started Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" back in Japan, read a good bit on the plane, some more during the layover at DFW, and then nada.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Some Assembly Required

If it comes with instructions there is practically nothing that is shipped in a box that cannot be assembled. Proficiency with a small hammer, a Philips-head screwdriver and an Allen wrench have made me quite the handyman these days. Half the rooms in the trailer are furnished with pieces put together by yours truly. There have been lamps tables, night stands, towel racks, a table, a small desk, one TV stand, and many other things.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Sunset

Driving to the Ranch at dusk to check on Mother, I saw a pretty sunset. It was beautiful. The sky was brilliant, majestic.

A few years ago my wife and I were vacationing in Key West and for years I had heard about its magnificent sunsets. Like no other, they said. Perhaps, but this time of year a South Texas sunset is like communing with God. My wife says that she experiences a bit of sadness to see a glorious sunset. I come away with a different experience. I see the conclusion of a blessed day and the promise of a new one tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


A mi no se me cierra el mundo,” she said. A month before she had been living and working 6600 miles from home, but today she was working hard to fashion a new one back where she had left off last summer. In spite of all the drama and hardship she and her husband had endured in the past tumultuous six months she was not about to let her world come crashing down. Of all the personal resources she had been blessed with, perseverance had always taken the lead.

When the two had landed in the States the material accumulation of the last thirty-plus years was packed into two pieces of luggage, a couple of carry-ons, and a few boxes they had shipped over from Japan. They would be starting from scratch. It was an advantageous condition in their eyes. He said it was liberating. She said, “A mi no se me sierra el mundo.”

Monday, January 12, 2009

Finest Kind

Leaving mom in the care of my brothers and sister at the hospital I headed home to attend to urgent business at the trailer house. The pickup's fuel gauge indicated about an eighth of a tank, requiring a fill up before leaving town. Just as the $1.65 a gallon gasoline began flowing into my tank a male voice calls out my name. "Hey, Salas!" It voice comes the driver of an old little red pickup pulling into the convenience store parking lot. He is a red-headed huero with a toothy smile who climbs out of the cab and begins walking in my direction.

"Atilano!" he calls. Damn, the guy knows me by name.

He calls out, "It's me! Marcos!"

The Rolodex in my head began flashing through 22 years worth of names of ex-students who went by Marcos. As he came closer I kept coming up blank. Who was this guy? He was at arm's length before I realized it was Mark Cottingham, doctor of veterinary medicine and one of the finest gentlemen to walk the earth. It was very good to see this old friend because our encounters have been too far and in between over the last eighteen years.

Otra Vez Again

Mother broke her arm again. She lost her footing at the bottom of the porch stairs and took a hard tumble; bruising both knees, breaking her forearm then whacking her head hard again the concrete walk. After the shock she managed to pull herself up and managed to walk thirty feet to her car for her cell phone to call me at work. Mom is eighty-two-and-a-half years old.

When I got to the Ranch I found her sitting in her room cradling her right arm. She had a knot the size of a golf ball over her right eye, but she was alert and coherent. God is merciful.

On the fast drive to the emergency room in my pickup she said, "Dios sabia que me hacias falta." It must be true, and one of the reasons I am over here and not in Japan any longer.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Failure & Success

Having failed in my attempt last year of escaping a small town existence and finding myself back in the same straits I was in back in the days prior to relocating to wonderful Japan, I thought back to one of my favorite movies that captures the angst of living in a rural community in the throngs of a slow death. In this stage of my life I relate more to the older Ben Johnson character in the movie rather than to the young men portrayed.

Ben Johnson, once a rodeo champion, lent realism to his portrayals in Westerns. For his depiction of Sam the Lion, the patriarchal mentor in the 1971 film "The Last Picture Show," he earned an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I believe the following lines from the role cinched it for him.

Sam the Lion: Yeah, I just come out here to get a little scenery. Too pretty a day to spend in town. You wouldn't believe how this country's changed. First time I seen it, there wasn't a mesquite tree on it... or a prickly pear, neither. I used to own this land, you know. First time I watered a horse at this tank was... more than forty years ago.

I reckon the reason why I always drag you out here is probably l'm just as sentimental as the next feller when it comes to old times.

Old times...

I brought a young lady swimming out here once... more than twenty years ago. It was after my wife had lost her mind and... my boys was dead. Me and this young lady was pretty wild, I guess. In pretty deep. We used to come out here ahorseback and go swimming without no bathing suits.

One day she wanted to swim the horses across this tank. Kind of a crazy thing to do, but we done it anyway. She bet me a silver dollar she could beat me across. She did.

This old horse I was riding didn't want to take the water. But she was always looking for something to do like that..., something wild. I bet she's still got that silver dollar.

Sonny: Whatever happened to her?

Sam the Lion: Oh, she growed up. She was just a girl then, really.

(reaching over to help Sonny roll a smoke)
Here, let me help you with that.

Sonny: Why didn't you ever marry her after your wife died?

Sam the Lion: She was already married. Her and her husband was young and miserable with one another like so many young married folks are. I thought they'd change with some age, but... it didn't turn out that way.

Sonny: Being married always so miserable?

Sam the Lion: No, not really. About eighty percent of the time, I guess.

We oughta go to a real fishing tank next year. Nah. It don't do to think about things like that too much.

If she was here, I'd probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about five minutes. Ain't that ridiculous? No, it ain't really... cause being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do.

Being a decrepit old bag of bones, that's what's ridiculous. Getting old.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Gods of Football

The gods of football directed their benevolent favor to tiny Benavides, Texas this weekend. The sad little community played host to the Brush Bowl at E.C. Lerma Stadium. The coaches must have been in football heaven and the two small convenience stores that serve the town enjoyed a spike in sales. There was added life and spirit in ol' Big Ben once again. There was actually something to go, see, and do in public for a couple of days.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Sugary Death

God, deliver us from evil. There are far too many tasty treats coming my way at work. This evil comes in the form of a donut glazed with a layer of chocolate. What chance does anyone have to resist such a mouth-watering temptation? God, deliver us from evil. This temptation came after an irresistable offer of a bacon and egg taquito big enough to feed three people. After lunch came ice cream Nuddy Buddies. What chance does a man have to keep the calorie count down? Almost none, certainly. If strength to resist and a little self-discipline fail to materialize doom awaits just down the road. The certainty of a sugary death is only a matter of time. God give me strength. Deliver us from evil.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dead Coons

Coming across an unfortunate creature struck and killed by a speeding vehicle is depressing. A life from the wild is no more. This week on the short drive into town on Highway 339 I have come across three raccoons that were not able to dash across a dark stretch of highway quick enough to avoid being struck. The bright lights of oncoming traffic have the effect of blinding these animals and freezing them in their tracks. They do not stand a chance against a couple of tons of speeding metal. It seems only proper to believe that these nocturnal animals have more of a right to the night than we humans. In all the years of driving these South Texas back roads in the dead of night I have been fortunate to avoid hitting a deer, coyote, opossum, rabbit, cow, dog, cat or coon. Except for about a couple of hundred frogs one rainy night in 1970, I did bump a black dog hard enough to make it yelp in Montezuma, Colorado back in 1998.

Coons are special. I see one of these beautiful animals with bands on their tails and a bandit's mask across its eyes lying dead on the road and I feel like stopping, waving my hand over the carcass, and miraculously bringing it back to life. The modern world is so cruel to nature's creatures.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I Can See Forever

When we were kids the phenomenon that made it possible on a cold and clear winter morning at the Ranch to see far over the horizon as if my magic is known as a form of temperature inversion called refraction. A dense layer of cold air on the surface bent the early morning light and made it possible to see great distances over the horizon. We would stand in the cold in awe of this seeming miracle of nature.

Years later when I left the Ranch to begin making my way in the world the opportunities to enjoy and appreciate wonders like this became scarce. After so many years I had all but forgotten about this neat trick of nature. Leaving for work this morning I experienced it again on the drive into town from the Ranch. It was marvelous. I could almost see all the way to Friday.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


In the days preceding our move to Japan last summer I needed to have been three of me to get everything done. Stretched thin is an understatement. Today the trailer house is being delivered and set up and my wife is being released from the hospital. The situation has improved considerably. I only need two of me these days.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Step away...

The notion of bullets flying in my direction when I pull in to a What-A-Burger is silly, but today was different. A police drama unfolded before my eyes in the customer parking lot as I sat munching on a Number 1 with no onions on a toasted wheat bun. This deliciousness was being washed down with a diet cola when a police cruiser with lights flashing chased a white long bed pickup to a stop about twenty yards from where I was parked. A backup unit rolled up seconds later. One officer steps out of his unit approaching the pickup from the year, a hand on the butt of his sidearm. His backup approaches the front the vehicle. The pickup's driver sits motionless staring into his side rear view mirror. All that is missing from the scene is the dramatic background music. I've put my burger down and set the drink into its holder. The officer's hand resting on his sidearm makes me a little nervous.

Normally, the wife and I sit in our pickup, eat our tasty burger and fries, watch the traffic streaming south on the 77 Bypass, listen to the radio and generally enjoy some quality time alone. It's a routine we've enjoyed for years. Thank goodness this time I am parked alone. A couple of blocks away Melba rests in a hospital recovery room after having her gall bladder removed this morning. If she were sitting next to me she would be telling me not to look, turn away and mind my own business. I am half glad that I am alone.

The pickup driver has been asked to step out. The backup officer is speaking into his radio mic and begins to approach the first officer and the driver. The officers speak for a short while and then turn their complete attention to the driver. I would like to hear what is being said because the pickup driver is beginning to sound off and stomp around, agitated about something. I imagine they are saying something similar to "step away from the vehicle, sir." A few seconds later his is being handcuffed and more upset. He is maneuvered into the back seat of a cruiser and the human drama is over. The arresting officers begin a thorough search of the white pickup. Thank God, no bullets. The little drama beat watching the traffic zip by.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

ER Drama

All the drama that rained on us throughout 2008 will be etched in our memory until the day the two of us draw our last breaths. Hoping for a respite from more of the same I held my breath for a couple of seconds at the start of this new year and made a wish. It was a wasted effort. The fourth day of 2009 found us in the emergency room. Melba probably has gall stones.

We walked through the sliding glass doors at 1:30 in the afternoon. Of course, the lobby of the emergency room was full, and loud, and uncomfortable. What choice do you have on a Sunday? Walk up to the window, fill out the forms, take a seat, and wait... and wait... and wait.

A big black flat-panel television monitor is mounted high in one corner to help the masses pass the time. The Reverend John Hagee's talking head is on the screen telling his Sunday flock about the healing power of Jesus. The volume is cranked up high enough to be heard over the conversations, the complaints, the crying, and the commotion of unruly children. Reverend Hagee's words do not seem to be registering on this crowd. After a silent amen I turn my attention back to my wife. Go ask how long it will be, she asks. It is a waste of time to ask, but I humor the poor girl.

At the clerk's window a man in grease-stained work clothes is talking excitedly. He appears tired and upset. His rough-looking hands cut small arcs and circles in the air as he talks to the girl sitting behind the glass. He has obviously grown very impatient.

"He has a very high temperature. He's burning up. You know that?"

"Yes, sir. I understand," she sympathizes. "We took all that information and we are aware. It will just be a while longer. Please."

"They told me that when we first came in. My boy's been waiting for more than an hour!"

"Yes, sir. We know. I'm sorry, but we are very full this afternoon and the doctor will see him as soon as possible," explains the girl.

"So a person could die just like that! Right?"

"That's not what I meant, sir. I understand," she explains in as calm a voice as she can manage.

"That's what you all are telling me! A person could just die right here! Just like that!" he says, unsatisfied, waving his hands in the air and shaking his head as he walks away.

I am next at the window but I do not bother to ask about wait times. That would be silly. From where I stand I can survey the room better. It is not pretty. Then, of course, who would expect it to be. All I see and sense are pain and suffering.

A young girl sits alone on a chair, crossed-legged and bent over, her small frame trembling. She kicks a leg back and forth nervously. She appears to be sobbing quietly. A heavy-set woman in her early thirties sits with a little boy of about three. His head on her lap. She strokes his brown hair gently. The listless boy's eyes look sad. An older boy of about seven or eight, his older brother I suspect, is not in the least troubled with listlessness. He can't sit still and complains loudly to his mother that it is taking too long. He is hard to ignore, but the mother somehow does or just does not hear him.

My wife complains that her cell phone does not register any bars. She asks about mine. I do not have a signal either. It is very uncomfortable to be here.

Across the way another mother and her two girls seem to be waiting for someone who already has been ushered to an examination room. They mention something about him being in there for a long time already. Another woman comes into the waiting area with two paper sacks and sits next to them. She hands one of the bags to the girls. They dig into them greedily. They are nachos and they have the effect of bringing the group back to life. They begin talking loudly and do not seem to have an end to the conversation. It moves from the youngest girl saying she does not want to eat too much because she does not want to be fat, to what did the police want at Marcy's house, to "I'm not going to put up with that shit from anybody!" They are loud, they smack their lips when they stuff their faces, and are not very pretty to look at. I wonder to myself where all the attractive people go when they visit the emergency room.

There is added drama beyond the large double doors in the receiving area of the emergency room. The doors each have a tall narrow window that affords a good view. If you happen to sit on just the right chair in the waiting area there is a good deal to be seen, but it is often best not to look. I looked. On a gurney lays another young girl with long black hair. Her face is not visible because it is hidden by a bloody white towel. From the way she holds the towel I suspect she has a busted nose or worse. Domestic violence? Who can say, but I wish I had not looked. Girls in distress do distress me, especially pretty ones. I imagine the face behind the bloody towel was as nice looking as the figure on the gurney.

Melba is getting more and more uncomfortable with her gall bladder problems and we have been waiting for two hours. In the far corner of the room I can see the man seated next to the boy with the high fever. The kid looks worse than the three-year-old with his head on his mother's lap. Sometimes life is not pretty. I do not suppose it ever is in an emergency room.

After you tire of looking a the people your eyes wonder about the room looking at other things; the dirty carpet, the scuffed floor, the hand prints on glass surfaces, the grit that has accumulated in corners and small cracks. This is not a clean place. Then you begin to wonder about the seat your behind has been resting on all these hours. After that your thoughts turn to the air in the room and what it is probably filled with. My thoughts turn back to the Reverend John Hagee and the assurance of Jesus that he was preaching about earlier. I utter a short and silent prayer for all of us in that room.

A couple of older gentlemen are thoroughly enjoying each other's company. One fellow is in his early sixties, the other perhaps early seventies. The younger of the two is explaining how he recently retired from work at the King Ranch. Been there since I was sixteen, he says. Worked with horses and cattle all my life except for a brief stint with the city, he adds. That taught me that I liked horses and cows more than people, he jokes. They both laugh. The sixty-some-year-old flashes beautiful white teeth, but from my vantage point I cannot tell if they are originals or not. Then he continues. Some gringo called me. Heard that I had retired. Asked if I wanted to go work for him. I asked what it involved. He said, the same old thing, horses and cattle. I thanked him, but said no. I have had enough of them both and I don't want to see more. Right now I would rather operate a tractor, back-hoe or bulldozer. At least with a machine you won't get your face kicked, offers the older of the two. They both laugh again. The two appear to be the only two of the sad crowd who are at ease and relaxed. Neither appears to be in need of medical attention.

After nearly three hours my wife's name is called and she is ushered to an examination room. Six hours after her initial examination I am on the rode back to the Ranch through the dark night. My wife remains, hospitalized overnight. The prognosis: the gall bladder has to come out.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Pox on the Nation

If this was a perfect world the sons-of-bitches that toss trash onto the highways of this country would be rounded up and the litter they callously discarded would be shoved down their throats and crammed up their miserable asses. It has never been this bad down this stretch of Highway 339 south of Benavides. Granted, the road sides around here have never been pristine landscapes, but these days they have taken on the look of litter-strewn roads leading to some third world refugee camp. It is shameful. There ought to be a law, and there is, but it has no teeth. What is sadder is that the culprits undoubtedly are locals, devoid of any semblance of pride or self-respect. Trash along stretches of highway has always been an irritant, but since my return from Japan the contrast between there and here is more profound. My sadness simmers on a bed of anger.

If there were justice in the world there would be a trash fairy that every night would magically take every bit of glass, plastic, paper, rubber, and soiled Pamper and lay them between the bedsheets of every sleeping offender, then beat them through the covers with a baseball bat. It would take but the wave of the magic wand. The image of such a fairy gives a measure of comfort even if it is only fantasy. But there is no justice. These criminals go undetected and unpunished, free to repeat their foul deeds again and again. They are a pox on the nation -- all of them. They are lower than animals.

The question has to be asked. What was in their mother's milk that brought about such a level of disregard? What poisons and contaminants did their mothers ingest to create such a wretched concoction to suckle? No more bitter brew was ever mixed in the bosom of woman to nurse on.

If the question is pondered unemotionally one conclusion can be drawn. The refuge that plagues our nation's public areas is a by-product of our affluence. That is the logical deduction. Ours is a throwaway society, the product of an 'easy come easy go' lifestyle. My mother tells of the years she experienced during the Depression and World War II. She looks back today and notes that families then didn't seem to accumulate much trash for disposal. People had so little. Yes, ours is a problem of affluence and abundance without personal responsibility to marshal the two.

It will all come to a head some day, this wastefulness. This generation will see the beginnings of it. What today is regarded as trash that is mindlessly tossed out the window of a moving vehicle may tomorrow become an article of value to be saved for another day. People will sit around their small fires fueled by cardboard, plastic and scraps of wood and tell the young of a time long ago when their fathers were young too. They will tell them of forgotten days when the materials they scavenge for today for survival used to litter the landscape. The little ones' eyes will grow large. Their mouth will open slightly in disbelief as they look back and forth, from the young to the old to the young again.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Throw-away Cuts

Like the hide, entrails, and internal organs, the by-products of butchered beef, fajitas, used to be thrown away as scraps. That was many years ago in a time of unbelievable ignorance. The fajita just wasn't considered a choice, much less marketable, cut of beef. At best they were ground up as hamburger meat. Thank God my people suffered no such notion about beef.

My brother-in-law grilled some tasty fajitas at the Ranch a couple of days ago. The leftovers served as my lunch today. Many thanks, brother-in-law. Fajitas are not fickle and they do not demand much to produce their savoring magic except to be turned regularly over the mesquite flames until the perfection of their flavor is realized. The technique and process is not rocket science. The one element for success is making certain that the skirt steak is of good quality. My brother-in-law takes pride in recognizing a choice cut by sight alone. He can judge the meat's taste and tenderness by simply looking through the plastic wrap.

What you do not want to see is the cooking process. It is not pretty. You have an old rusty barbecue grill that used to be a chunk out of a 20-in pipe in a former incarnation. The ends have been capped, or rather welded shut, with quarter-inch steel plate. A length of 2-inch tubing serves to vent smoke out the top, but it works very inefficiently and serves more for decorative purposes. A lid is cut out the top and secured to the cylinder with door hinges, allowing for an open/shut operation. Dividing the interior is the metal grill itself, spot-welded to four lengths of angle iron, forming the rectangular cooking surface. The whole contraption stands about forty inches off the ground on any number of leg-like arrangements. Some with wheels others not. All of this is usually covered in rust and the grill itself is encrusted with the burnt remains of countless cookouts. A hot layer of mesquite coals is shoveled onto a couple of inches of South Texas soil at the bottom of the barrel and then the fire is built up to cooking temperature by adding chunks of mesquite. Soon the whole apparatus will heat up like the steel boiler in a steam locomotive. Most cooks prep the grill with a few hard passes of a wire brush. They wipe it down with a rag or paper towel and declare the "sanitized" grill ready to receive the cuts of meat, be they beef, chicken or pork. Some fellows wrap up potatoes in aluminum foil and lay them on the grill off to a side where they cook more slowly.

The end-product is a culinary delight, but it is certain that most people would not want to see how it is prepared outdoors. If someone voices a concern about the level of sanitation in the meat's preparation the cook will declare, "la lumbre quema todo," and you cannot argue with that. Summer, fall, winter, or spring-- barbecued fajitas are a year-round favorite in these parts. Standing underneath a South Texas sky even the most chronic sourpuss lightens up to some degree when he's got a cold beer in his hand and the flavor-laden smoke drifts his way.

Just imagine, they used to throw this stuff away.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


A clever fellow posted his homemade combat video on YouTube using small plastic toy soldiers against the backdrop of a tiny war-torn village. The buildings were fashioned from cardboard. The clever part was that he used an audio clip from the 1998 motion picture “Saving Private Ryan” as the soundtrack and matched the action to it. It was crude but effective and it sparked Evan's imagination, encouraging him to replicate what he had seen in the video. If it is one thing that adults should do for children is help them fertilize the imagination. Depending on their environment some kids have better soil for it than others. The less a kid has to work with materialistically the more likely he is to grow his imagination. Evan already had a company of plastic soldiers, probably his most prized possession. These he keeps in a shoe box I gave him four months before when we packed up his toys and moved them out of a hall closet in our former home. Evan designates the good guys from the bad guys by the toy soldiers' shade of green and he does not stray from that formula. The good ones are the good ones and the bad ones remain the bad ones. The raw materials for constructing his battle-torn village were easy enough to obtain—ordinary cardboard and duct tape. Our tools were an inexpensive box cutter and a black Magic Marker.

We soon got to work measuring and cutting. Cautious for his safety I undertook the cutting. Box cutters can be lethal. Evan supplied the construction ideas and used the marker to designate where windows and doors would be cut out. He drew shingles on the cardboard roofs. It was a new kind of fun he discovered. Not all the good stuff comes sealed in clear plastic. I hope he realized that Wal-Mart does not necessarily stock all the neat stuff he needs to play out his imaginary army battles. It was my hope that he learned that there is no limit to the play things he could fashion from inexpensive materials. I did make it a point to remind him that costly batteries would have no role in the completion of this project.

It was not long before he declared that this cardboard village would be kept at his great-grandmother's house. It would be safe there; secure from the destructive teeth of his grandmother's house dog. At his house floor space for playing out his combat scenarios was scarce. Evan has developed three levels of play, each according to what toys he has stored in these three locations; great-grandmother, grandma and home. It is certain when Melba and I move into our new home he will develop a unique fourth level of play with a different assortment of toys. At that point the environmental restoration of his play world that was deconstructed when we left for Japan back in August will have been restored. That is my hope. In the absence of that former environment he seems to have adjusted well, but it was not a pleasant thing knowing that it had been deliberately taken from him. Guilt is a terrible thing.