Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Señora Burns

Today was an exceptionally good day. I made a friend. Toddy Burns -- muy simpatica. The first time I saw this remarkable lady was on a YouTube video back on the 17th of May. I was searching for videos of the South Texas brush country to link to from my web page. Of all the ones that came up on my computer screen I clicked on one titled "looking for a gimmick." The 29-second clip showed a young woman riding a unicycle on a caliche road along an oil field tank battery out in the mesquite brush. Bizarre, very bizarre. What hooked me was the original hand-drawn logo at the start of the video and the quirky background music. As far as I was concerned the clip was pure art.

Her collection of videos is a gallery of news, humor, wit and originality. For God's sake! The woman uses a kitchen spatula to hold the mic in her videos. How original is that? You can't make this stuff up. Following the link on YouTube to her homepage (rancholosmalulos.com/) opened a universe of satirical writing, dozens of informative videos and daily blog posts filled with more drama, danger, and humor than a Mexican novela. You see, Señora Burns is at war with those that would despoil her South Texas neighbors' land and her family's ranch and it is all chronicled on her blog, Rancho Los Malulos, at rancholoslosmalulos.blogspot.com/. Following her exploits has become a part of my daily routine and has also served as an education. Señora Burns is on a crusade to make the energy companies clean up their mess.

Go to her blog and read. If it were a book you would not be able to put it down. See for yourself how in the last century the oil resources of the South Texas brush county were exploited by the big energy companies leaving the land scarred and poisoned above and below ground. What has been done to the land is criminal. That is only one facet of her adventures down in the borderlands. Wait until you see and read about the countless smugglers and pilgrims (a.k.a. illegal aliens) that traverse the property. Take out your rosary beads because you will want to pray for this woman, her family and the energy company employees that have to live or work in Señora Burns' neck of the woods. Danger lurks everywhere. Strike a match and light a candle to Saint Michael.

Toddy Burns took a personal interest in our drinking water problems in Benavides. By phone or in person she has contacted community officials that can help make the public aware of the man-made origins of their groundwater's contaminants and how to make the responsible parties own up to their culpability and clean up their mess and pay restitution. She is a fighter and today she and her husband drove up to see Benavides for themselves. It was my pleasure to shake her hand and call her 'friend'. Today was an exceptionally good day.

Click HERE to watch a short video Toddy Burns shot late this afternoon in our pueblito.

(The photo above is Photoshopped. Only the billboard and the logo on my shirt are fake. The respect and admiration for Toddy are real.)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Adam's Ale

Twenty years ago an attorney friend told me the county government needed to act quickly to protect its residents' groundwater from exploitation by people or entities that would not have the citizens best interests in mind. He proposed the formation of a groundwater conservation district that would conserve, preserve and protect our ground water. The public meeting to get the gears in motion on this proposition was held this evening in Benavides. There were nineteen members of the community in attendance.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Descansen En Paz

On a low hill surrounded by the prettiest expanse of rolling countryside in that part of southeastern Duval County rests the Rios Community cemetery. It's nice out here -- quiet and breezy. The small cemetery is neat and well-kept considering it's in the middle of nowhere. It is just distant enough from the highway to offer the kind of quiet that is hard to come by these days. All you hear in the wind are the happy chirping of birds and the distant bellow of cattle.

We navigated the lonely caliche road out here on this hot afternoon to tend to my maternal grandparents' final resting place. Tacho passed on back in 1979. Cipriana followed him five years later. As is natural for people in the autumn of their lives I wished I had interacted more with them when they were around. In youth we are too focused inwardly to exhibit enough appreciation for "the old people." Maybe it ought to be a crime, but it isn't. It is just the nature of youth. But these days I do feel developmentally poorer for not having shared more of my time with them.

There are some forgotten graves here. They haven't had any attention in decades. I suppose there are too few of the living left, or none perhaps, to remember the souls that were laid to rest long ago underneath the brown earth. As Mom offers her silent prayers for her parents I explore the graveyard -- reading names and dates, calling them aloud to myself. The bones of many have rested beneath the ground I walk on for over eighty years. I wonder who will stand over my grave and call my name aloud eighty years after I am gone. What will remain of this hill when I am dust?

I know of one lost grave here. It is an infant's. Had he survived to manhood he would have been my uncle on this side of the spiritual divide. He died in infancy before my grandparents had my mother. She'll turn eighty-three this August. In the stream of life since he died the marker on his grave fell between the cracks of the memory of the living. Mom can only point to a spot on the ground a few paces north of my grandparents and say, "Creo que allí esta enterrado mi hermanito."

Mom misses her parents. Before turning to leave she says... bueno, descansen en paz.

God Have Mercy

The local forecast for the week serves to remind us why it is best to live life slowly during a South Texas summer.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mesquite Beans

Too bad there isn't a demand for mesquite beans around here like there is for marijuana. I would be a rich man. Tomorrow I will have to climb on Mom's roof and sweep off a zillion dried mesquite pods. Life would be easier if she didn't love the shade of those trees. In quick order I would make firewood out of the ones close to the house. Those strings of beans are everywhere. After the roof is clear, then comes the raking, then the picking and then the hauling of the damn things to the disposal pit. I sure wish there was a market for these things.

The pods are most abundant during times of drought. Except for the prickly pear, the mesquite is probably the hardiest living thing in the brush country. It will be around until the next Ice Age.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Crescente Luna Fuscus

"Wow! Look at that," I see Melba look up at the waxing moon. It dominates the night sky to the west. "It's so brown." We had just driven in from Kingsville.

The moon's pure white glow common in rural South Texas was gone. Instead, the moon looked dull. It's all this damn dust in the air, I tell her. That's what's giving all of us this dry cough every once in a while. We're all living in a haze of dust. It's everywhere. It's so dry.

Few look up at the night sky any longer in the "modern world," except perhaps ranch people and farmers. I still think the moon is mysterious -- so ancient. The moon has been a celestial partner with the earth for eons. There was a time when the moon's phases were as much a part of the humans species as our heartbeats. We need a long period of rain to scrub our atmosphere clean down here in the borderlands.

Crescente luna fuscus? A brown waxing moon in Latin. Hat tip to my older brother, a student of Latin.

Noontime Commerce

The pueblito comes to life at the noon hour. People have to eat and wherever it is that they keep themselves in the a.m. hours, they come out to feed when the sun is at its apex. Today there were some good folks from San Diego who came and staked out a commercially advantageous piece of ground between the Kwik Pantry convenience store and the railroad tracks. They had arrived with a purpose and neither the searing temperatures, the grit from the flying dust thrust at them from the incessant traffic or the earth-shaking rumble of passing trains would keep them from their day's mission -- sell tasty food cooked on the spot. Their mantra -- cook it, and they will come.

Word of this Tex-Mex gastronomical outpost reached the ears of three co-workers. To hell with Weight Watchers and the battle of the waistline, ¡Hay que comer con gusto!

A tenth of a mile down the road from the day's mecca of artery-clogging Tex-Mex delectables el frutero was doing very well with the rush of customers at noon. An informal agreement with the lady who operates the small hardware store allows him to set out his fruit and produce in the shade of her business' awning. The post office is only a few steps away making the location conducive to his sales. My mom likes the bananas there. Says most of his goods are better than HEB's and undoubtedly fresher than what Wal-Mart lays out in air-conditioned comfort.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Booming Metropolis

An email from a fellow blogger facetiously referred to Benavides as "the booming metropolis." The last time there was a boom of any nature in this pueblito was the summer after my high school graduation in 1971. It came from a jet high overhead breaking the sound barrier. There hasn't been a boom of any kind on the ground or in the air since.

The town is not homogeneous with the rest of the country. People's accents are different here. Attitudes about life in general do not mesh with the East or the Left Coast. Life here is indicative of a people torn between two cultures, American and Mexican -- almost like living in another country, but with the rights and privileges that come with U.S. citizenship.

Booming metropolis? Not anytime soon. It is going to take new blood, outside blood with fresh ideas, to get some kind of a boom started in Benavides. Granted, the town has been oozing its lifeblood for decades, but don't call a priest just yet.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Freddy Fender

Back in 1959 Baldemar Huerta, a twenty-two year old songwriter from San Benito, Texas, wrote these lyrics for a tune he was working on.

Wasted days and wasted nights,
I have left for you behind
For you don't belong to me,
Your heart belongs to someone else.
His efforts paid off. "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" became a Billboard hit in 1975. By this time Baldemar had changed his name to Freddy Fender and was riding the wave to fame and fortune. The lines to his song came to mind this morning when I pulled into the parking lot at work. Three cases of Bud Lite longnecks lay scattered on a patch of St. Augustine. Only one of the empties missed landing on the grass. Its menacing shards lay scattered like shark's teeth on the blacktop. That is a lot of beer to drink in one outing, even if it is the watered down variety. My hope is that this drink fest was over a lost or unrequited love. Helping dull the ache of an injured heart is the only acceptable reason for imbibing to these lengths. Otherwise, what a waste -- day or night.

A closer examination suggested that the culprits were just plain beer lovers and not some brokenhearted fool howling at the moon because his innards had been ripped to shreds by some woman. Far too many expectorated pumpkin seeds were in evidence at the scene. It's hardly possible to equate despondence of the romantic nature and the masticating of pumpkin seeds. One of them was a heavy smoker too. Cigarette butts were mingled with the pumpkin seeds.

The workforce began trickling in and the trash on the ground was understandably ill received, but no one volunteered to pick it up. "Too much spit on that stuff," is how one of the ladies put it. By this time I was already armed with a couple of plastic trash bags, but someone said that the company had a man for this kind of cleanup. "Just leave it, sir. Don't touch it." That was alright by me.

There must have been at least $60 worth of beer this bunch guzzled down. And what for? Just to piss it away later on the ground somewhere? What a waste -- days and nights.

Freddy in the Garage

One evening in February of 2000 I was sitting in my vehicle at the old Padre Staples Mall parking garage in Corpus Christi. My wife was making a quick purchase at Dillard's so I opted to wait in the car and listen to some talk radio. Every once in a while my eyes would catch a glimpse of someone walking to or from their parked vehicle. I'd give them only a quick glance, but one fellow merited a little more study. He and the big shiny Lincoln he was climbing out of were a perfect match; real class. He was sporting a black felt Stetson with a silver hat band, a brown leather blazer, white shirt with a western bolo tie, starched blue jeans, and black leather boots; the consummate picture of western polish. It was Freddy Fender. The path he was taking would bring him right past me.

I was sitting there in my car, thinking -- thinking fast. My first impulse was to casually step out of my car as he approached, make eye contact with the man, say hello, and just offer my hand. I wanted to lay the "I'm a big fan of yours" line on him. But I didn't. I stayed right where I sat. The man deserved his privacy. I did not disturb Freddy and just studied him as he walked by and onto Dillard's.

Tonight, I wish I had said hello. He probably would not have minded at all. Descansa en paz, Freddy.
(1937 - 2006)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Three Horses

You would be hard pressed to find people with a greater sense of commitment than the horse owner. There's a nice piece of property just off of 339 outside the city limits that I pass on the way to the Ranch. The owner keeps three horses on it -- pricey animals from what I understand. I would never keep a horse. Don't have the disposition for it. I don't even own a dog any longer. I buried the last good dog I called a friend back in May of 1991. Stuck to me like gum for ten years. I still miss him. He didn't require much and asked for even less. Just a good feeding a couple of times a day and the occasional flea bath were all. We didn't talk much. I did most of the jabbering, but we understood each other as much as a man and a dog could in the natural world. But horse ownership is another proposition altogether. That takes commitment with no compromise. The horse owner loves and serves his animal. That has to be admired in a person. Sure horses are pretty to look at and even fun to ride, but the upkeep to maintain their form is never ending. They can't be put away in the closet like some toy that's novelty has faded. The horse owner is worthy of our esteem. The evidence of his or her commitment is incontestable -- in plain sight for the world to see. Funny what three horses in a field make a fellow think about.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Just Because I Can

"Why do you bother to change your own oil?" She's been asking that question for more cars and trucks than he could remember. "Why don't you let THEM to do it?"

His answer is always the same. "Just because I can."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sun, Sand and Sea

Padre Boulevard runs the length of South Padre Island. When the four-lane corridor reaches Andy Bowie Park north of town it becomes a narrow two-lane county road called Ocean Boulevard. It continues north in this manner beyond the city limits for another seven miles hemmed in by towering dunes of white sand. It is a gorgeous drive and a real outdoor treasure, almost pristine. Good or bad, utility services are beginning to creep northward from the city. The evidence sticks up through the sand every few hundred yards paralleling the road. You cannot stop progress. But for today the unspoiled spaces are ours to play in. Leaving the car to explore the area from the dunes to the beaches was the best kind of fun for the kids -- no batteries, cables or instructions required. The exercise did not hurt, either.

I shared with the kids that today was the longest day of the year -- the summer solstice and the first day of summer. It would have been nice to plunk our butts down on the sand and explain to them the science behind this one day out of the year. Certainly the setting had its advantages over a classroom, such as one is, shut off from the elements. They were too excited and it was a bit too hot on the sand, and their little hearts were racing too fast to absorb any kind of cerebral input from me. It was more entertaining under that bright sun to pick up as many pretty shells off the sand as their small brown hands could hold -- rinsing them clean in the sea water.

El sol, la arena y el mar. The words sound so lyrical. When the tip of your tongue gently taps the roof of the mouth as the last syllable exits you can almost hear the strum of a Spanish guitar. Those three nouns partner up like Domingo, Carreras and Pavarotti to conjure something beautiful. The sun, the sand and the sea.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Sea

Melba and I took the kids to the beach this weekend, South Padre Island. It is the finest stretch of sand on the entire Texas coast. The kids are not ours. We just borrowed them from their mom.

I was 15 years old the first time I saw the sea --the Gulf of Mexico. I stood high on a dune at the Padre Island National Seashore and from my vantage I felt as if I was standing at the edge of the world. I had never imagined anything so vast.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ya Me Voy

Four business establishments in our pueblito are fitted with a drive-thu window to service their customers. Depending on the the day of the week or time of day, I am accustomed to reaching out my driver side window and pulling back a breakfast taco, a greasy burger or a cold six-pack of beer through those windows. Another establishment offers raspas in assorted flavors but I don't go there. Raspas give me brain freeze. This morning there was a small surprise at DC's, my preference for the Monday through Friday taco run. A familiar face popped through the window. It was my primita, Cecilia. She spotted me from her table in the restaurant and came to the window to say hello.

"Ya me voy," she said. It is common knowledge that she has been offered a coaching job in Hebbronville. She deserves it. The Eagles' loss is the Longhorns' gain. Benavides will be just that much poorer at the start of the athletic season next school year.

That is the underlying story here. Benavides struggles to keep its talent. The brain pool isn't bad. There is just no opportunity here. It has to be invented, otherwise, ya me voy. The bottom dwellers have already begun to tip the scale in their favor.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hace Un Año

A year ago we were on a train from Milan to Venice. Melba slept all the way. I could not stop pinching myself. I was returning to a lost love.

I Hate Snakes

A snake and I gave each other a startle this morning when I stepped out to dump a trash bag. I know people who keep these slithering things as pets. Snakes. Not me. Not ever. If they don't have rattlers I stomp them dead with my heel, a big stick, whatever is handy. And if rattlers come into play -- reach for the spade, the .22 or the shotgun. They are the most demonic-looking creatures on the planet. Snakes. Without exception I kill them all. I hate snakes. They bring out the worst in me. They turn me into a cruel and horrible man. Perhaps it is ignorant of me, but I kill every one of them I come across without hesitation.

If it's a black snake, however, it is not molested. That was one of the leyes del monte that Dad emphasized when we were growing up on the Ranch. "No se matan las vivoras negras." We called them black snakes but they really are known as Texas Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon corais erebennus). Why the stay of execution for this particular snake? Texas Indigo snakes' primary food source is rattlesnake. That makes him our friend in the brush, backyard or anywhere that we trod ground.

This morning's surprise was not very big -- only about 24 inches long. I toyed with it for a few seconds while I recalled Dad's words of wisdom. The black snake and I quickly tired of each other's company. It glided away on the concrete in that hypnotic motion that snakes have. I dumped the trash.

We've got a black snake at the Ranch that stretches out to about six-feet in length and we kid to each other that it is probably as old as our mother. It has been there a long time and for years we have not seen any rattlesnakes around the property. Mom's got a bunch of cats too, so she's pretty much covered. I hate snakes.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Watering Hole

In 1964 I came close to drowning in the public school's swimming pool. My classmates were having so much fun on the slide I just had to be a part of it. They were in the deeper part of the pool. The problem was that at age 11 swimming was not one of the items on my repertoire of personal skills. Hell! I thought to myself. I can fake it. Apparently, God was meeting His quota of idiots produced on the day I was born. I climbed to the top of the slide and happily slithered down, taking the plunge into the clear water. The water was deep and I could not figure how the hell I was supposed to get back to the surface. After frantically splashing about in desperation for a few seconds (but what seemed like a lifetime to me) my classmate Osvaldo Soliz saw my predicament and offered his outstretched arm. I was saved. I do not believe I ever thanked him properly.

The swimming pool has fallen into a sad state of disrepair in the last few years. It was built way back in 1960. Many thought it would never open again. Thankfully, the school district found the funds this year to fix it up. The young people in town have so precious little to pass the time with in the hot summer months and the pool is a real blessing to have. We do not have lakes, rivers or streams to splash around in down here in the borderlands. The closest thing to a watering hole is may some tank on a ranch supplied by the steady pumping from a windmill. During these hot days there is nothing more inviting than a great big beautiful swimming pool.

Osvaldo, wherever you are? Thanks. I owe you one.

A Year Ago Today

A year ago today Melba and I boarded American Airlines Flight 98 from JFK to Milan, Italy. One year later I have a head cold in Benavides, Texas.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Taste of Arsenic

There was a letter in our post office box today. There are letters in there every day, but this one was not asking for anything. It was different. Every family that has city water piped into their home received one. The first sentence of the first paragraph in the letter drafted by the good people at the Duval County Conservation & Reclamation District says it all.

"The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has notified the Benavides -Duval County Conservation and Reclamation water system that the drinking water being supplied to customers had exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for ARSENIC."
This is not good news for man or beast, nor the struggling St. Augustine grass that folks try to keep green in this drought. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established the MCL for arsenic at 0.010 milligrams per liter. What we have coming out of our pipes is an annual average of 0.032 milligrams per liter. It would be advantageous to learn all there is to know about this contaminant that is in the water we cook and wash with. God help those who drink the stuff, especially the children. Makes me wonder what adverse effect, if any, it may have had on me and others. I grew up drinking relatively shallow well water (80 to 100 feet) and have boasted of it often. Our pueblito's wells go down a bit deeper.

Arsenic. The name itself sounds like it wants to sneak up behind you in the dark and cut your throat from ear to ear. Dad would have shrugged off the news about the arsenic and said, "A little poison... she don't kill." When you get a chance Google "arsenic," but leave the lights on. It's scary.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Solo Un Recuerdo

The corner where the crumbling remains of Nap Chandler's old Texaco full-service gas station stand should have been razed and trucked off long ago. Its location off Highway 359 is but one of many eyesores that parallel the east west run through town. There is enough demolition work in Benavides to make someone a small fortune. Yet, even today the old service station's cracked and weed strewn concrete slab still serves modest commercial interests. For years now the lady who braves long hours under a summer sun to sell artificial flower arrangements that adorn the graves of loved ones continues to set up shop on that corner. No permit, no license, no overhead, no hassles. That's what I like about this town. Free enterprise is free to all. On the negative side is the fact that her sales do not generate any tax revenue for the city's coffers. She's here because Fathers Day is near. It is all but certain that her entire inventory will be gone by week's end. Between sales she will periodically scoot the stool she sits on -- following the narrow shadow cast by the old Texaco's walls. It moves slowly from west to east, marking time.

Fathers Day will be observed this coming Sunday and we all have to remember and honor our fathers whether they are with us or not. Granted, the flowers are fake, but oh so pretty and colorful. For the graves of the departed they are as Dad used to say... solo un recuerdo. The lady selling flowers ought to set a small arrangement down in the shade of Nap Chandler's old Texaco before she leaves at the end of the week solely as a homage to the gas station's more prosperous times.

Nap Chandler's Texaco in better days back in the 1950s.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Beer and Ice

A 103 degree afternoon in Benavides is just what the accountant ordered for boosting the beer and ice sales at the Country Store. The steady sales are good for the bottom line, but Tiffany could do without the heat that assaults her through the drive-thru window when servicing customers. It's like a blast of dragon breath every time she slides that thing open. Worse still is the fine caliche dust stirred up by the constant crawl of traffic parading by the window. It is suspended in the air like a faint haze waiting to be sucked into the store through that sliding window. Short of paving the driveway with blacktop or a good downpour to settle the dust there is really nothing she can do. Niether the blacktop nor the rain is likely anytime soon. The dust settles on everything inside and out. Even the dogs in the street could use a good vacuuming.

The town needs some relief from the heat if for no other reason than to change the conversation. The subjects of the drought and the heat have already been worn to tatters like the knees on an eight-year-old's jeans. It's time for a change. Another week of this and folks will start saying something silly like... "It's gonna take a hurricane to get us some relief from this dry spell." If that happens then Tiffany will be selling more batteries than beer.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Supermen of Summer

Ramon is one of the mighty Supermen of Summer who brave the desolate places of the South Texas brush country to do battle for the technically challenged and helpless. He is an air-conditioning technician -- a giant of a man among the pantheon of greats in the civilized free world; plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, computer techs and the guy who comes in to fix the copy machine. Today the valiant Ramon staved of an attack from the fiery lashes of the sun dragon.

Our air-conditioning unit failed us overnight. Only minutes after a call to Advantage Air Conditioning in the City by the Sea this young ace of air-conditioning began a seventy-five mile trek inland without benefit of map or guide and found our pueblito in this forlorn country. Greater still, he located our humble abode in this network of nameless pot-holed streets. In short order he discovered our unit's problem, replaced a capacitor the size of a chicken egg and got our unit up and running by eleven this morning. His long day of service had only just begun. At this hour the temperature in the shade was already 95°.

After a round of thank you's he climbed back into his dusty white van to leave, then the cell phone hanging off his tool belt gave off a shrill ring. It was another call for help. Ramon was off again to battle with yet more demons that were descending like the blast of a great furnace overhead down into the hellish onslaught we call the South Texas summer. Ramon smiled and drove off to the east from whence he had come. He was needed in Ingleside, ninety miles away. The dispatcher had said it was the widow Larson, a good long-time customer of the company. And just like that Ramon was gone.

Godspeed, good man. We wish there were more like you.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Free Enterprise

Across the street from the office a trio of ladies were hosting a garage sale without benefit of the garage. A garage's roof would have been preferable over what the three had between them and the blistering South Texas sun in June. My little cellphone camera could not capture the intensity of the punishing sun in the photos it took. The ladies were holding up bravely under a small beach tent and what breeze there was wasn't any more comfort than the heat reflected off the hard ground. The high temperature had no affect on their customer base, however. The curious trickled in, wandering among the tables neatly laid out with assorted trinkets. They paid little mind to the heat.

The weather people have a term called the heat index. I suspect that TV weathermen were behind its invention for the sole purpose of getting more mileage out of their brief time in front of the camera. They have only a brief time to shine. Every second counts. And conveying to their loyal audience the heat indexes of various South Texas communities can take a while. The heat index is a formula they devised that couples the temperature of the air with the relative humidity. This combination produces a number that the human body perceives the temperature to feel like. When I walked across the street to examine the ladies' wares the temperature was 100°. The heat index was 110°. When I was a kid we didn't have a heat index to reference in summer. We just had damn hot and what Dad referred to as "¡Esta cayendo lumbre!" The latter meant that even he had to take a short breather, momentarily abandoning what work he was doing to seek the shade and something cold to drink -- and the ol' man was not one to bend easily to the elements, hot or cold.

So what is it that motivates these fine women to market their goods in such a raw and unforgiving environment? I believe it is their sense of entrepreneurship and faith in the free market. Make a product available at a fair price and the people will come, and they will come with cash in hand. You don't have to teach that truth in the schools. It is ingrained in the hearts and minds of a free people. Go! Free Enterprise!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

¡Nos Estas Matando!

In the 1943 motion picture Casablanca an exchange occurs between Rick and a young refugee, a newlywed who's naive husband is gambling away their dwindling stake at roulette in a desperate effort to win enough to secure exit visas and flee war torn Europe for America. In an impassioned account of their dire straits the girl exclaims that "the devil has the people by the throat." The bedrock of that sentiment is felt deeply these days by the locals in Benavides.

Every morning on the short drive to work the Quick Pantry's CITGO sign towering over the only gas pumps in town marks the steady rise in fuel prices. The "devil" of supply and demand has this community by the throat and whoever is charged with determining the price at the pump in Benavides must be outfitted with horns, a long pointy tail and a pitchfork in the claw of their writing hand. He or she has this pueblito by its collective throat and they know it. The local price per gallon is always jacked-up ten cents higher than in any of the nearby communities. Have a look for yourself at FuelMeUp.com. At noon today in Freer, 24 miles northwest on 339, $2.37 at the Shell. Sixteen miles up the road on 359 in San Diego, $2.49 at VALERO. East past la Catorce in Kingsville, $2.49 at Diamond Shamrock thirty-five miles away. Forty miles south and east in Falfurrias, $2.44 at the EXXON off U.S. 281. Southwest of here following 359 to Hebbronville, $2.44 at Stripes. CITGO pumps in Benavides today, $2.59 a gallon. This has the devil's fingerprints all over it. He hates the people of this pueblo. ¡Nos estas matando!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

after they've seen Paree

Leaving the office this morning Oscar David was loaded down -- his elbows crooked up close by his sides. He looked busy. In his right were charts for his day's work and in his left was a docile shag of hair with two tiny eyes staring back at me. It was a Yorkshire Terrier that could not have weighed more than a six-pack of beer. Her name was Paris, the antithesis of every four-legged critter that inhabits the South Texas brush.

The appeal of little house pets like Paris is understandable. They afford a bit of comfort from the rough edges that come from living down here in the borderlands. She has a cold nose, a soft silky coat and smells pretty. Presently, South Texas is hot, hard and smells of drought.

Holding that adorable toy dog up close softens your disposition and makes you wish for better things. How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

One Got Away

For some time now most of her personal effects, minus her fluffy dog, have been in Bloomington, Indiana, but she still calls Benavides home and comes to visit her folks as often as her studies allow. She no longer belongs to this dusty South Texas pueblo. Debra is one of the ones that got away. She's 23 now, but early on she grasped that the world was more than just the scrub brush landscape around here. It was a stage on a universal scale cast full of possibilities. She is an exceptionally bright lady who earned a degree in Community Health from Texas A&M and is today pursuing her masters at Indiana University. Aside from expanding her mind and opportunities, her studies have opened doors abroad. She recently returned from a trip to the Far East with a university group touring universities and health clinics in Korea, China and Thailand. This puppy's eyes have been opened wide thanks to her educational pursuits. The gal walked on the Great Wall of China for goodness' sake! Not bad for a kid brought up and schooled in the sticks.

Speaking with her dispels silly notions I sometimes entertain that America's best days are past. There are enough young people of Debra's caliber in amble supply to just about guarantee that all will be well in the home of the brave in spite of our present woes.

Yes, she's one that got away using her brain and some education. That's the ticket out of here if that's a young person's desire -- the registrar's office or the recruiter's office. The military, too, has played a big role in punching someone's ticket out of here. It can be done if one so desires. What it comes down to is simply making a choice coupled with an ounce of courage.

Monday, June 8, 2009

High and Low

Fifty miles in every direction landowners are selling off their stock and investing in miles of high fence to lease their property to game hunters. It is an element of the legitimate economy down here. There exists a thriving illegitimate economy as well, but that is a whole other can of worms for another discussion at a later time. These days the land lies idle. In a move that would have caused ranchers a couple of generations ago to choke on their chew if they could see it today, the brush is allowed to have its way with the land to encourage a proliferation of wildlife.

Hunters of the world... come on down!

For many former ranchers it is the only way they can pay the bills. So when I pulled out of the parking lot heading home for lunch I came on a tractor rig hauling a long flatbed stacked high with cedar posts and could not help wonder who was still making enough money with cattle to warrant a stake like that. If I didn't have but one hour for lunch before having to return to my work at the office I would like to have followed that load just to satisfy my curiosity. But hell, it might have been going all the way to the border for all I knew -- too far and too hot for me -- and I don't mean the weather.

The sight of virgin cedar posts racked on a trailer coupled with that fragrant bark draws me back in time. I return to my youth on the Ranch. I remember the summers past when my brothers and I would be working alongside our old man stacking hundreds of bales underneath hay sheds topped with corrugated tin that turned them into ovens -- the air so thick with dust it scratched the back of your throat like an old rag even though we tied bandannas across our nostrils and mouth. Or digging post holes in unforgiving caliche that fought back with equal strength every strike of the heavy steel bar we used to bite into the bottom of the hole. Or the heat and danger to life and limb we endured pushing half-wild cattle that had lived most of their lives in mesquite brush through a narrow chute and onto cattle trailers using little more that a mesquite branch to prod them on. I am certain that on days like that I must have wished to be somewhere else, somewhere far away from all that physical exertion that taxed mind and body. No doubt I wished to be as far from that sun-baked ranch land as possible. Young men think like that, but I am no longer young. I would dearly love to have one more day like that. It would make me happy to work just one more day with my father and brothers -- the sun pouring its heat on our backs and shoulders as we stretched just one last quarter mile of barbed wire along an unending line of cedar posts.

The sight of those posts today caused my spirit to feel high and low at the same time.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

It Doesn't Take Much

Dad always appreciated a good spread of St. Augustine grass. One of my earliest memories is of my father carefully digging up neat squares of sod grass from our old place to lay in the yard of the ranch house we moved to when I was five years old. More than fifty years later the grass is still there, thriving. The windmill pumped good water -- sweet. To this day it is the finest tasting well water I have ever come across in my life. The water was so soft you could hardly rinse the suds off of your hands when you washed before supper. After a bath your skin felt silky smooth and your hair was as soft as a baby's. That was long ago and Dad is gone now.

His parents, a brother and a sister, aunts and uncles, are buried in the Salas Cemetery, a half-acre patch in the heart of what was once a great farming community in the day of my great grandfather. When my father's father was laid to rest there in December of 1957 the cemetery was bordered by farm and pastureland in all directions, but by then the decline had begun. The farming communities that were the norm of the time and the area became fewer and fewer. Today, a vast tangle of mesquite brush has dominion over the land that cotton ruled a half-century ago. Time marches on. Ours is a different age and a different economy. A good number of the old Salas clan are underneath that ground. A couple of times a year some of the living will hoe off the weeds and tidy up the place, but our number is shrinking. The graves, like the memory of the people that rest beneath, are being forgotten. It doesn't take much -- just time. Before the present generation passes the weeds and prairie grasses are going to hide them from sight.

The idea that no one would tend his grave irked Dad. Offhandedly, he let it be known that this was a great concern to him. As dearly as he loved his parents he declared on more than one occasion that when the time came he wished his remains to be deposited in Benavides.

"A si me ponen flores y regarán el zacatito mas sequido," he said.

He got his wish. The flowers that color his grave may be artificial, but they are bright and pretty. The grass is real. It is thick and green. At first I tried getting Bermuda grass to cover the ground there, but it would not take no matter how much effort I made. Sun, no sun, water a lot, water sparingly, aerate the soil, for years I tried. Then I did what the old man would have done. I dug up a good bit of sod grass from my brother's yard in Bruni and put it to work at the cemetery. I watered it religiously and bingo -- the grass took and thrived. Dad just had to have his way. He wanted what he appreciated most, St. Augustine. Today I mowed it in this hundred degree heat and then gave it a good soaking for a couple of hours. Even during this miserable dry spell the resting place for his earthly remains is green and shady -- just like he would have wanted it. The old man has been gone since the fall of '95, but I still follow orders. It doesn't take much.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

I Need A Few Things

"I need a few things," she says.

Ay, chihuahua, I think to myself. In my head the ay, chihuahua does not take the voice of a shout of discovery or surprise. It is a lament between my ears that sounds like... Ay, chihuahua. I am going to have to drive the 36 miles to the WalMart in Kingsville and drop a hundred dollars. Ay, Dios. What can I do? She is my woman and I love her and she needs a few things.

On the surface, maybe my body language suggests complaint, but the truth is the next three or more hours invested in going and coming add up to what the wife and I call our "quality time." It is just her and me in close quarters with only the cell phones risking our peace.

The drive is pleasant. We talk, we share, we laugh. There is practically no traffic until we cross the 77 overpass. Around here we call that point in our local geography la Catorce. The telling of the reason behind that name is for another time. But before la Catorce is mile after mile of mesquite brushland interrupted by pastures, low rolling hills and long curves on the narrow highway that make you feel like you're slowly nestling deeper into the fold of your lover's embrace. We enjoy the road. Past the 77 overpass the highway straightens out like an arrow to Kingsville and runs flat through the characterless range of the King Ranch.

Without speaking a word it is understood that once in town and before we shell out cash to the stockholders of WalMart, first, we must roll through the Whataburger's drive thu. At the speaker box the food order rolls off my tongue as sure and steady as Hail Marys from the lips of the faithful as they steadily coax pebble-smooth rosary beads between thumb and finger. Two mouth-watering number ones with no onions on toasted wheat buns with two diet Cokes is our carnal communion before we brave the wide and brightly lit aisles of the WalMart.

It is 8:41 p.m. and a great pale glow clings to the western sky as we exit the store pushing the few things in the grocery cart out to our vehicle. That fading light looks blue and the heat collected on the parking lot's blacktop from its time in the day's sun rises from beneath the soles of our shoes and envelopes everything. The few things she needed fill the back seat. It is Saturday night and we are going home, my woman and I.

Today the free world surely must have commemorated D-Day, the Six of June.

Friday, June 5, 2009

No Gahdeh Papers

The term bail out has a whole different meaning down here in the borderlands and has nothing to do with a government "rescue" package for a failing business. In these parts a bail out occurs when a vehicle being chased down by the Border Patrol or other law enforcement entity is forced to come to a stop and its load of human cargo (wetbacks, illegal aliens, undocumented workers, paperless immigrants, unauthorized migrants, or as Speaker Nancy Pelosi would probably refer to as undocumented Democrats) flee the vehicle and scatter in all directions to elude capture; bail out. They have become all too frequent around here. Repairing high game fences is now a common item on a rancher's to-do list.

It is rough for these poor folks if a bail out occurs in the middle of nowhere and it happens to be the middle of summer. We are talking life and death here.

A bail out took place here in town just the other night. They made their escape good because the street lighting is so bad in Benavides that it was a simple thing for the illegals to disappear into the darkness. The sound of yapping dogs was the only clue giving the agents in pursuit some direction, but they came up empty-handed after searching for an hour. Those that got away would be fine. There is food and water aplenty around town. It is certain that one in the group of illegals would have the name and number of the local coyote.

This incident jarred a memory I have of one late afternoon a few winters ago when a group of illegals came calling at the Ranch on one of the coldest days we'd had in a long time. The cold can kill just as dead as the summer sun.


My Story

I was breaking the law, maybe. Four wetbacks were huddled low in the bed of my pickup. I was driving them north. A couple of miles outside of town I pulled off 339 and turned into a county road, raising a fine cloud of white dust. All the county roads are caliche in Duval County. We're poor around here. Speeding along for a few hundred feet, I slowed and came to a stop. Rolling down the driver side window the cold air poured in like ice water. I stretched my arm out and thumped hard on the roof of the pickup three times. Cramming my neck out the window I called to them, "¡Abajanse aquí!"

The four quickly jumped out and then just stood in the middle of the road watching me. One offered me money, but I waved him off, turned my pickup around on the narrow road, and drove off as fast as I dared back to the highway. I was scared, a little. They wouldn't be troubling us any more.

Earlier that afternoon I had driven to the ranch to visit with Mom. It was bitter cold outside with a hard northern blowing, the kind that sucks the breath out of you. There was nothing moving outside, not man or animal, save the spindly branches high up on the mesquites. Mom and I were chatting at the kitchen table when we heard a couple of raps on the window at the back door. We thought a bird had flown into it. We didn't pay it much attention until we heard it again. This time it was three raps. I stood and walked to the door drawing back the small curtain. It was a young man, a boy really, a wetback, a mojado. All he had on was a t-shirt, jeans, and a well-worn pair of sneakers. The kid was freezing.

"It's a wetback, mom," I said, turning back to the table. "I'll take care of it."

"Aye, mucho quidado, mijo." She wasn't scared, but it did concern her not knowing how many were out there. It was never just one. This new breed of wetback bore little in common with the ones that used to pass through twenty or thirty years ago. Back then they were just poor men looking to earn a few U.S. dollars to help their families back home. Today, it was best to be overly cautious.

"I'll be all right. I'm sure there's more of them. See what we can give them to eat." I stepped out into the cold. I didn't want him or however many were with him, near the house.

"¿Quantos son?" I asked.

"Somos quatro," he answered.

"¿Donde estan?" I needed to know where this poor bunch was huddled against the cold. They had to get fed and gotten rid of. It was late in the afternoon and I didn't want them spending the night here.

"Los de mas estan al lado del edeficio," he said, nodding to the garage. "Hemos estado aquí por un rato. No sabíamos si había un perro cerca."

I wish mother did have a dog. These poor freezing bastards might have gone on by if she had.

Sure enough, the other three were squatted down underneath the overhang on the downwind side of the garage. They weren't wearing much more than the first fellow. Here it was in late November and these unfortunates were dressed like it was the middle of August. They didn't even have caps to cover their heads. The oldest looked to be about eighteen, the youngest maybe fourteen or fifteen. They were cold, it was getting late on the day and I needed to get rid of them, pronto.

"Esperan me aquí," I told them. "Les traeré algo para comer."

I walked quickly back to the house. Mom was making a stack of salami sandwiches and had the coffee brewing.

"Mom, forget the coffee. Let me just get these guys out of here," I reached for a three-liter bottle of soda from the cabinet underneath the sink and grabbed some plastic cups.

"Mom, you got some old coats or jackets around here somewhere?" I blew a blast of hot breath into my cupped hands to warm them. "Those guys are freezing."

"¿Quantos son?" asking how many they were.

"There's four of them. All they have on are just plain shirts. They're just boys."

"Pobres inocentes de Dios. There's some things in plastic bags in your old room," she said. "See what you can find."

"I'll take them the sandwiches and drinks first," I said. "Then I'm going to haul them out of here."

"Be careful," she cautioned, but she wasn't worried really. I had done this before.

Putting the drinks and food into a cardboard box, I went back out to the garage. They were still against the wall where I'd left them. I handed them the box. Their gratitude showed in their faces.

"Les voy a traier unos sacos. Esperan aquí," I told them, then sped off to look for some warmer clothes, any kind of protection from this cold.

Mom wasn't kidding. I found a heap of old garments in my old room. Mom never threw anything away. She came in to help. We found an old insulated vest, some women's sweaters, a jacket, a tattered coat, and even a couple of winter caps. All together it wasn't nearly enough to properly outfit this bunch, but combined with some food in their bellies, it was enough to save their lives tonight.

I stuffed what I thought they could use into a large plastic bag and went back out to the garage. As hungry as I'm sure they were I wasn't surprised to find that they had quickly finished everything Mom had prepared.

"Aver si éstos ayudan," I said, passing out the items. They eagerly reached for them, grateful for their good fortune on this miserable afternoon.

As they were bundling up in layers of warmth and protection the oldest informed me that they wanted to find this fellow in a town called Benavides. He asked if I knew where Benavides was and if perhaps I knew the man.

Benavides was just a few miles north on the highway over there. I motioned with my arm to State Highway 339, just a couple of hundred feet from where we were standing. The man in question I knew and so did everyone else in this part of the county. And everyone knew what he did, but I wasn't going to tell these boys that. I didn't need that kind of trouble.

I told them I would drive them just shy of town, but that was all. We had to go now, I said. ¡Pronto! Piling into the back of the pickup they looked like an assortment of jelly beans. Their winter wear were assorted pinks, blues, whites, greens, reds, and yellows. I laughed to myself.

Our donation wasn't nearly enough to protect them adequately from the temperatures that were sure to drop into the upper twenties tonight. My final Good Samaritan act before driving off was giving the youngest of the bunch my own jacket and cap. Once on the road I felt the same as I did whenever I threw a dog -- consciously forced indifference. It's a cruel world.

These days I would never do something like this with a bunch of illegals. The times and the types... they are achanging.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Identity Lost

The last couple of generations has seen the cultural chasm widen even more between yesterday's South Texas Latinos who spent their youths on the ranches and small towns of the brush country and today's adolescent Hispanics. What remains connecting these two groups is a wisp of ethnic mores. These are as fragile as spiderweb. My generation seldom examined or questioned the nature of its identity or roots stemming from the unique South Texas Latino culture. Today's young Hispanics seem unsure of their place or their relationship to the world around them. They taste everything set before them exercising little or no discrimination. It is as if they gorge themselves on popular culture like kids having free reign in a candy store with no concern as to how it will affect them in the future.

There was a time when my Latino contemporaries were defined by their towns, their ranch communities, their music, their dress, their manner of speech and expression, their Church, and their traditions. Having been removed from those roots for a generation or two has not diluted its impact on their character of my contemporaries. This truth is lost to many of today’s young Hispanics in South Texas. They seek unimaginable or poorly defined lives in some illusionary "Land of Oz" beyond the borders of their communities. The 24-hour-a-day bombardment of commercialism, rebellious and defeatist music, pseudo-reality programming, and the watered-down curriculum of public school coursework have made an indelible, and no doubt damaging, scar on their developing lives. They have no identity. They have blended for themselves a non-homogeneous pseudo-culture concoction that has no flavor. In a twisted effort to seek distinction they have lost any semblance of sophistication.

Well, that's my soapbox. Whatever sense I was trying to make got lost in all the adjectives. I'll step off it now.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hope of the World

The hope of the world weighs only six-and-a-half pounds and comes wrapped in a baby blanket. This precious boy isn't a week old yet. For the last few months he's been coming to work at no salary to the N.S.C.L. admin offices growing comfortably in his mama's womb. He came by for a face-to-face visit this afternoon.

He was passed from one pair of coochie-coochie arms to another and I too wanted to hold him, but that lump-in-the-throat returned for another visit and began choking me harder this time. I folded my arms across my chest and only smiled at the angelic face, consciously keeping my emotions in check. What good medicine a newborn is to the spirit.
Justin Derrek Dominguez
May 26, 2009
6 pounds, 5.8 ounces
18 inches long

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Class of 2021

The 68th summer of my sojourn on this good earth will be looming when this group of Benavides kindergarten tots are handed their high school diplomas. My little friend Evan is the one standing on the far right in this photo. I hope I still have all my teeth when that day comes, but the hair is long gone with only vestiges of a once great crown remaining. We are four brothers in the Salas clan. Number one and number three still require frequent visits to the barber, but number four and I haven't raked our tufts with the fine teeth of a plastic comb since before O.J.'s low-speed pursuit. Mom says that the blame for the cue ball condition lies with the Mendez side of the family. I won't kid you. It is not an easy thing to live with, or without, as the case may be, but regardless of what any man may admit to himself or confess in public we all entertain some measure, great or small, of vanity. But enough about hair.

Watching this afternoon's little "commencement" ceremony generated a warm fuzzy sentiment in me. As the tiny tykes marched past on their way to their seats on the stage the proverbial lump in the throat made me swallow hard and discretely bring a knuckle up to the corner of my eye to brush away what had welled up there. Macho surrendered to mush long before the last kid sat his tiny butt on the small chairs arranged on that stage.

Little Evan scanned the audience trying to locate family and friends. When his eyes locked with mine he smiled and my heart melted. In that instant I wanted to freeze time, rise from my seat and go up to the boy to hand him a blue print for living the next fifty years of his life. I would like to have explained to him how to avoid hurt and disappointment. I wanted to make him understand how important is was for him to sit and listen to..., converse with..., and ask a thousand questions of his parents and grandparents because one day in the distant future there would be no opportunity to do so. I would like to have placed my hands on his little shoulders, stared into his big long-lashed dark eyes and somehow supernaturally impart into his spirit what few useful pearls of wisdom I'd managed to acquire in my fifty-six years. But time stops for no one. I would just have to do like everyone else and make good use of the times he would still be willing to listen and learn. And the reality is that it is a very narrow window of opportunity.

It is certain that the same was wished for me as a child by the many who loved me, but you cannot load a small child with a burden that heavy. It cannot be borne. Evan and the Class of 2021 will simply have to grow.

The afternoon's events give me reason to be a better man and so I feel a bit taller, stronger and invigorated. I even brush a phantom lick of hair away from my forehead. It's strange. It felt so real. Unfortunately, tomorrow I descend into the valley of the shadow. I have to perform my service to the community as a member of the County Grand Jury. From one day to the next I move from an conclave of sweet innocence down into a dungeon of despair to pour over the testimony and accounts of the lowest dregs of society. It's enough to make me want to pull my hair out.

Monday, June 1, 2009

No Piensan Bien

The smell of wood smoke hit my nose not two steps after shutting the front door to the trailer house. I had just finished my lunch of cold chicken washed down with a twelve ounce Diet Coke and was headed back to the office. What fool is lighting up brush piles on a windy day like this? Dammit! The whole county is nothing short of kindling and a thousand feet from my back door there's a guy setting fire to heaps of dried mesquite brush as tall as an elephant. Now every man has a right to clear mesquite off his property, but a little prudent thinking was in order here. "No piensan bien," is what Dad would have said.

I studied the hazard for about ten seconds coming to the conclusion that fifty acres of mostly barren ground with only a few sprigs of short buffel grass provided enough of a buffer between my property and the folly before me that was sending up great plumes of white smoke. It sure was neighborly of him to blanket the town with smoke just as folk were sitting down to lunch. The steady wind blowing toward town and away from where I stood offered some assurance. I climbed into the pickup and drove away.

Three hours later I am working at my desk when the shrill wail of the volunteer fire department siren penetrates the walls. Damn idiot is going to burn this squalid collection of woodframes we call Benavides to the ground. Probably did not have sense enough to run a wide disc around the perimeter of the burn to create an adequate firebreak.

There was little need to worry about flames gobbling us up. Soon the local 24/7 cellphone chisme network identified the alarm as little more than a grass fire next to the burn. Surely it was best to wait until after a good rain to play with fire. That land owner just plain no piensa bien.