Friday, July 31, 2009

Do Right

While standing in line at register 12 in the Kingsville Wal-Mart I felt a tap my shoulder. "Hello, sir. How are you?" The voice was familiar, but I couldn't place it right away. I didn't have time to. Turning around I first saw a gorgeous baby girl looking up at me. She was perfect; beautiful, cradled in the arms of a young man. Then the recognition came. He was an ex-student of mine -- one from the last group of seniors I taught before retiring from teaching.
Are you going to tell me she's yours?
Yes, sir. She is.
What's her name?
Adelyn.
Adelyn? Pretty name. Where'd you get it from?
Her mother and I made it up. We thought it was nice.
Yes. It is. It's a pretty name.
Thanks.
Do right by her, buddy.
I hadn't seen this young man in over a year. It was nice of him to come over and say hello. I was happy for him. He was a father. He loved a baby daughter. Only twenty years old and already he was responsible for another life. These are tough enough times just to manage a single one. I wished him well. As he walked away I prayed that his little girl would have a father as good, capable and loving as mine had been.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Old Bridge

My group wrapped up its work at the home health billing seminar this afternoon and we were immediately on the road back home from Houston. Stopped only for gas at a mega-convenience store near El Campo called Prasek's Hillje Smokehouse. I'll stop there again next time I'm this way. They've got great meats there and a bakery.

When I got home all I wanted to do was relax. I chose not to invest the time writing something fresh. Instead, I offer this little story I dreamed up back in December of 2007 after driving out to Simmons, Texas just to have a look at an old bridge a retired football coach told me about. Something about the old bridge inspired all sort of stories. I call this one... what else? The Old Bridge.

Ernest had always wanted to learn the history behind the Old Bridge, or at least know its age, but knowledge of either had escaped him. It seemed that only God alone knew how old the bridge was. All mortals who may have been able to date the bridge had long ago gone on to their reward, or punishment, as God saw fit. The Old Bridge was already an abandoned relic when Ernest's father was a little boy. People had just called it "the old bridge" and little to nothing was known about it.

Curiosity or knowledge of near-past artifacts seemed to hold no one's interest in the county, except perhaps Ernest's. In all his years, and he was well into his sixties now, he'd learned little more except that it had once been a means of traversing the Nueces River to haul cartloads of wool to market before the days of paved roads in these parts. That was the extent of his knowledge, or anyone else's. The Old Bridge was a mystery to the modern age. If it had ever been the source of stories or secrets they were all lost -- all, except one. And that secret was the story behind Ernest not having a little toe on his left foot, but he would take that one to his grave.

Nothing on this good earth would have brought him more comfort and peace than to forget that one time on the bridge so many years ago. He wished he could forget it like a bad dream, but every time he put on or removed a sock, in an instant, he would be taken back to that awful day. He had managed to keep the reason for the toe's loss a secret these many years due to the early demise of his best friend that summer long ago. Ollie had been his very best friend back then and other than Ollie, no one could tell the secret, and the dead told none.

Tragically, on that hot summer day nearly sixty years ago his little friend Ollie had been crushed under one of the big tires of the farm tractor his grandfather had been operating. As his grandfather was dragging a bloated dead cow out of a field with a chain, Ollie had been standing on the axle housing between the tractor seat and the left rear-wheel fender. The tractor had only been moving along at a crawl when its weight caused one of the front tires to cave-in over a large ant colony. The tire instantly sank deep into the ground causing the tractor to lurch forward throwing Ollie under the tractor's path. His grandfather, looking over his right shoulder, was too occupied making sure the hard jerk of the chain hadn't pulled the leg off the cow, so he hadn't seen Ollie go under until it was too late. The boy died instantly. His grandfather never forgave himself. Ollie was only eight years old. The accident had occurred just before the start of school. Ollie never got a chance to squeal on Ernest about that day on the old bridge and the circumstances of how he had come to lose his little toe.

The funeral was a sad affair. Ernest remembered that his coffin had been closed and Ollie's mother had to be pried away from the small coffin by her sisters so that the men could lower the casket into the ground. Ollie's father had just stood there the whole time, motionless, never saying a word and the boy's grandfather never ventured from the farm after that tragic day -- stopped going to church. Ollie's folks moved away shortly after that. It was ten years before Ernest went back to the Old Bridge.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My Butt's Asleep

You can't put a butt to sleep by making it count backwards from 100, but you can if you sit all day in a home health billing seminar. Had to drive all the way to Houston for a couple of days to punish my behind like this. ¡Aye. Mis pobres nalgas!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pretty Good Mileage

My younger brother Ricky's 51st birthday was today. His second grandchild, Ricardo Javier Salas III, was born on the 29th at 9:02 in the morning. The kid needed some more time in the oven. He popped out at only 5.12 pounds and 19 inches long.

I bet Mom and Dad didn't think they were going to get so much mileage from that name when they christened their fifth-born back in 1958.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Neighbors

Uncle Sam's southern border leaks like a sieve. From San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas that line on the political map doesn't stand for much any longer and the number of people on both sides, white and brown and whatever, who respect that line is shrinking faster than the American economy. The pressure exerted on that border is like a steam boiler ready to blow and the situation is turning increasingly violent.

A while back I came across a couple of interesting articles online. One was from a December 2007 piece in the Los Angeles Times and the other was an AP story that was posted on MSNBC's website. The stories dealt with U.S. Border Patrol agents battling rock-throwing attackers on the U.S.-Mexican border south of San Diego and the unrest among the citizenry the incidents caused on "the other side." Those stories, paired with a handful of videos featured on Señora Burns' hard-hitting blog Rancho Los Malulos that occasionally, among other things, documents the plight of these poor unfortunates who risk all to forge a better life north of the border, shook loose some creative dust in my brain's attic. A story started playing itself out in my head. I wrote it down before the inspiration waned.

---

Neighbors

It was going to be another bad night in Esther's San Ysidro neighborhood. She had just heard the crash of another tear gas canister on the roof of the shanty she shared with her daughter and her three grandchildren. It was the third tear gas attack tonight. The canisters were being shot over from the American side by la migra at the crowd of boys. Sometimes boys were recruited by the coyotes to shoot ball bearings with slingshots at la migra, or just throw glass bottles, rocks and bricks over the fence at them. Their attacks served to distract the americanos so that others could cross to the North at another location, undetected.

Esther pushed towels under the doors to keep the smoke out. Her windows were already closed. Through the thin walls of her house she heard a neighbor shout, 'Stop it! There are children living here!" Thinking about the children made her remember when she was about the same age as her grandchildren. In those days the agents used to hand out candy and Christmas presents from across the border, but that was a different time. She knew her grandchildren would never see days like that in their lifetimes. It was a different world now.

The last time this had happened she had fled her barrio with her three-week-old grandson after the infant began coughing from the smoke that seeped through the cracks in the walls.

"We don't deserve this," she heard one neighbor shout. "The people who live here don't throw rocks. Those are people who come from the outside, but we're paying the price."

The talk in the barrio was that the agents had received compressed-air guns that shot pepper-spray canisters more than two-hundred feet. Her little house lay only one-hundred feet from the fence. La mirgra sometimes used what they called "flash bombs" that emitted a blinding light and also "sting ball" grenades that dispersed hundreds of tiny rubber pellets. She feared those worse than the smoke. Those could easily injure one of her precious grandbabies.

One of her neighbors, Guadalupe, a seamstress in Tijuana, said she has been startled by a tear gas canister that had come crashing through a window one night. Her eight-year-old son suffered a cut on his nose and it was all she could do to stop the bleeding. The boy had cried for hours that night. No one had slept. That attack had also shattered a window of her neighbor's car. Another time Guadalupe's nineteen-year-old sister-in-law had fainted during an especially bad tear gas attack about two weeks ago. The woman, five months pregnant, had to be given oxygen at the hospital. Guadalupe had got so angry that she found the courage to step outside and run in the dark at her attackers across the fence. She shouted in protest across the border at a helmeted agent in his own tongue. "You have no right to do this! We have done nothing!"

She knew English very well and understood exactly what one agent said when he shouted back, "I'm the policeman of the world and I can do what I want."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Feliz Cumpleaños

Humberto el barbudo, my eldest brother, turned sixty-three today. With the youngest marking forty-four on the calendar earlier this year the Salas siblings are probably all closer to the end than to the beginning. What can you do? Cancer stole Dad away from us when he was seventy-three, but Mom is the fittest eighty-three year old you could imagine. She's healthy and looks great. Health wise, we're pretty optimistic about the road ahead.

When the afternoon temperature dropped to 106° at the Ranch my brother-in-law fired up the grill while the rest of us relaxed on Mom's shady porch. A pleasant southeasterly breeze made sitting outside tolerable -- at least for us, the dog and the cats. Birds weren't doing too much chirping this afternoon. Too hot for song, maybe. They didn't have to sing anyway. We had the melodious magic of Eydie Gorme y Trio Los Panchos floating in from my pickup's CD player. Even though it was a cool dry 78° in the house everyone recognized a need to be outdoors. Regardless of how well-educated, traveled, read, connected, etc. -- we're still ranch people and I think we laugh more when we sit outside. And there's lots to laugh about.

Salas siblings one, three and four were present for the celebration. Two, five and six could not make it. Houston, Beeville and San Antonio are a bit distant to drive from on a blistering hot Sunday. Not everyone enjoys sitting outdoors in the heat unless they have a love-of-the-desert-Lawrence-of-Arabia complex. I do. Cold beer helps a good deal. Shiner Bohemian Black Lager was my coolant of choice. Humberto was drinking some silly brew with a Jack Daniels label on it, but it helped temper the heat and if you didn't make any sudden moves perspiration wasn't a concern. When my brother-in-law pulled the last of the meat off the grill it was a cool 99°. Feliz cumpleaños, hermano.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

$721.97

I do not believe that operating my pickup in a driving rain on paved roads or streets would be a safe practice. At times, because I carry precious human cargo, it's important to have dependable rubber making contact between me and the road and I don't see enough thread on my pickup's tires to give me that level of confidence. The vehicle passed inspection last month, but that new sticker on my windshield wasn't enough assurance to prevent me from purchasing a set of new Michelins. I did. Today. To the tune of $721.97, and I get a "free" tire rotation every six months for that princely sum. You just can't put a dollar amount on personal safety whether it is yourself or the loved ones that ride with you. But damn! I can still feel the pain in my wallet hours later. I remember buying tires for my first car a thousand years ago. It was a used 1965 Volkswagen and the tires cost nineteen dollars each.

Am I expecting rain in the near future? No, but a least I know what it was once like to have water fall from the sky. I have memories of drizzles, rains, showers, downpours, deluges, and some floods worthy of being recorded in pictures and video. I remember rain. Many kids do not. A good rain has become as rare as a snowfall down here. Children look up at the clouds like Chicken Little every time they hear the occasional thunderclap. Will it ever rain again so I can hone my driving skills on rain-slicked highways? Yes. I am a faith man. It will rain again and a few whose memory of this miserable drought will fade much too quickly will curse the rain and foolishly cry out, "No mas." When it does rain... and it will... I will be ready. I will be grateful.

Friday, July 24, 2009

El Condado de Duval

This is really a great place to live -- Duval County, Texas. It's pretty country in rough and rugged kind of way... minus the litter bugs, the dilapidated buildings, the decaying infrastructure, the thieves, the drunkards, the coyotes, the ruffians, the wife and/or girlfriend beaters, the child abusers, the shiftless, the drug users, the liars and any other soul who doesn't practice the Golden Rule. There is good living to be had here. Malcontents need not apply. All others... just follow the Rule.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dust of the Moon

The NASA surplus store better have some left over moon suits. Before long we're going to need a few around here. The real estate between the trailer and my street could pass for the surface of the moon under certain lighting conditions. A month ago I drove the pickup over the ground behind the house and the tire tracks are still there, as fresh as if they had been laid down this afternoon. The moon suit will come in handy for surviving the outside... handy for breathing, cooling, protection from the sun and dust. It's becoming desolate out here, only it's not the "magnificent desolation" that awed Buzz Aldrin forty years ago. The tracks stand out like the lunar rover's on the dust of the moon. Here, all that moves over the ground are the impervious ants and the hot wind. Nothing else changes.

NASA photo from the Apollo 15 mission
Come by Benavides on a Sunday afternoon. The pueblito appears as if a neutron bomb had been set off. You remember... the Cold War... the neutron bomb... how it was suppose to work. KA-BOOM! When the dust settles and the radiation clears only the infrastructure, such as it is around here, remains standing, but the people are gone. That's Benavides on a Sunday afternoon -- or a Monday or a Tuesday or a whenever. Phantasmagorical desolation. (phantasmagorical is not the proper term to apply here, but it's such a great word to use I couldn't pass it up. I am a weak man.)

A friend with a keen sense of humor nailed it with this eyewitness observation. Benavides "reminds me of a show my kids watch that is called something like 'After Humans' and they have these models of places deteriorating. The narrator says, '30 years after humans'... and it begins to crumble.... '50 years after humans'.... well, you get the idea." Clever girl.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Like A Million Bucks

If we could all be doctors of internal medicine there would be no guessing about what ails us from time to time. At the very least we would have some clue as to what we imagine might be killing us. I just got over a bad cough. Understanding why I suffered this nagging torment for thirty-five days straight would be of some comfort. It was almost constant during my waking hours. This hacking torture in my lungs and throat could have been charted on a bell curve. It began with a tiny nasal drip, then a steady dribble that tickled the throat, followed a day later by an occasional cough to expel the hint of phlegm. Finally, at the top of the curve, the bronchi were struggling to conduct air. There were instances when I felt certain that the next violent fit I was going to make me cough up a pink chunk of lung.

At that point Jesus Christ was beginning to look to me like He was only a whispered prayer away from giving me a personally escorted tour of my place in the hereafter. "Aye, Dios. Make it quick or make it stop." Mentally, I began taking inventory of the things I would miss when I passed from this world. God, I needed more time. There were still places to see and asses to kick.

I went to a doctor when a cough like this hit me about five or six years ago, but the horse pills she prescribed didn't do a damn bit of good. By day twenty I finally quit thinking about Jesus every five minutes and a familiar sense of well-being began taking root. Sliding slowly toward the tail-end of the bell curve made me feel like a million bucks and I was filled with the hope of living strong for another healthy twenty or thirty years. I finally shook this incessant cough -- beat the miserable thing back like a bad memory. In those thirty-five days I never developed a fever, never sneezed, the muscles never ached, and the appetite never left me. In the past few months a good number of people in town, young and old and in-between, have suffered a hack like this to one degree or another -- some bad, some not so bad. Maybe it's all the particles that hang in the air like a dusty death cloud over South Texas.

Thank God it's licked as far as I'm concerned. I feel like a Lazarus man. Too bad I don't know more about the internal workings of the human body and just a bit about how medicines work. That knowledge could come in handy if there is a next time a few years down the road. But hell, I don't even take aspirin.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Like A Duck

Are you going to swimming lessons today?
I don't want to.
What do you mean you don't want to?
I don't want to.
You got to learn how to swim.
I already know how to swim.
I mean in the deep part. You have to learn how to swim in the deep part.
I can go underwater.
Underwater? What do you mean? You can swim underwater?
Yes. I can go underwater.
Swimming underwater ain't swimming. You got to swim on the surface to call it swimming. Underwater doesn't count. On the top. You have to go on top of the water. Going underwater ain't swimming. It doesn't count for swimming.
Yes it does.
I don't think so. How come you don't want to go to swimming lessons? What's the problem?
They make you get in line. I don't like to.
Get in line? What do you mean?
They tell you to do stuff. I don't want to.
Stuff? What do you mean? Like they give you instructions? Tell you what to do?
Yeah.
Well, how else are you going to learn to swim then? You have to do what they tell you.
I don't like it.
Everybody learned how to swim in that pool. Your mom, your uncle Javi, everybody. They can all swim like fish. You have to learn.
No I don't.
Swimming's fun.
No it's not.
Yes it is. You know it is. You love playing in your grandpa's little pool in the backyard. You know you want to be a good swimmer.
No I don't.
That's silly. That's a silly thing to say. A lot of kids would love to come here and learn how to swim for free. They don't charge you anything in the school's swimming pool to learn how. Come on!
I don't want to.
Okay. We'll talk about this later.

The next day the kid was in the water taking lessons from the swimming instructors. Evan's grandmother had taken him aside and informed him that some nice little girls he already knew were attending the swim lessons. The kid is only six years old. I have a great deal to learn about motivational speaking from the boy's grandmother. Before summer's end, instead of sinking like a rock in the deep end of the pool, he'll be swimming like a duck.

Monday, July 20, 2009

What the Gods Ate

It's past ten o'clock and no one with normal working hours has any business in a kitchen at this hour taking inventory of a refrigerator's contents, but I am a weak man vexed by demons of the 'I want food but I don't know what to eat' variety. Standing in the cold white light I can find nothing that I want to reach for.

Truth is, I do know what I want but that delicacy is one that belongs to the old life. It would not matter if I lived in a metropolis or in the sticks. I may as well be wishing for a bowl of manna. For this South Texas ranch kid his manna takes the form of a hot flour tortilla folded over and filled with cold refried pinto beans right out of the refrigerator from my boyhood home. The beans must be prepared charola style. No other preparation method will do. God forbid that someone should try to substitute canned beans. Blasphemy! It is certain the gods feasted on the real thing before the tejanos stumbled on their secret and shared it with their people. This delicacy can sustain me morning, noon, and night, but it has to be our mom's. When we were kids we'd ask her how she made the tortillas taste so good. She would say, "Todo esta en el calor de la mano." That explication cannot be duplicated, taught, handed down, or even translated, but I don't doubt it. Aye! Hot tortillas and cold refried beans! I want some so badly.

Word of caution for the weight conscious (I'm talking to myself now), this is not a low-diet food item. A seven-inch tortilla stuffed with a half-cup of refried pinto beans will add up to about 210 calories -- and the trouble is that I can't eat just one. Me las puedo comer hasta que salen por detrás. That didn't matter years ago when I was young and pretty, but these days my lifestyle is too sedentary and one must be mindful of his daily food intake. I need to double my walking and keep the demons at bay. What does it matter? Mom hardly ever makes her tortillas anymore, or her beans. I am going to bed hungry, I think.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Deflated Dreams

Pinching wasn't going to snap us out of it. The two of us were wide awake. Friday evening Melba and I were digging into Mediterranean cuisine on the terrace of Olives at the Bellagio while taking in the spectacular fountain show choreographed to Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli's duet "Con Te Partiro." The entire affair was absolute perfection and the dreamy night felt as though it could go on and on. But, bubbles have a short lifespan.

Thirty-six hours later I am staring down at a near-flat tire on my pickup in Benavides where it is only eight degrees cooler than Vegas' 112°F, but nowhere near as pretty. There can't be a more compelling way of deflating a fantasy built up over the last few days. A lousy flat tire. It was time to get my hands dirty. Apparently, the tagline "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" extends to the dreams we craft there, too.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

We Ain't Got No Recession

Recession? We ain't got no recession. Least ways not in Las Vegas -- not if it's supposed to be a slowdown in economic activity over a sustained period. Melba and I just got back from three days in Sin City and The Strip was the most crowded we have ever seen it. The trade in personal vices is immune from the effects of the nationwide recession. Jet-loads of fun seekers filled plane after plane after plane coming and going from McCarran International Airport.

Vice. Therein lies the answer to Duval County's decades-old economic woes. Legalize slots and casino gambling in the pueblitos and the dollars will soon fall like manna from heaven. Build them -- the casinos, and the hordes of pleasure-seekers whose pockets are filled with money will come.

But I could be wrong. The odd thing is that this morning's paper, The Las Vegas Sun, reported a 12.3 percent unemployment rate in the city. I don't get it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Young and Pretty

It was 1985. I was thirty-two years old, had a thirty-two inch waistline, a full head of hair and weighed one-hundred and sixty-five pounds. I was a different man then and I was in Acapulco -- young and pretty. It was only the second vacation trip my wife and I had taken since our wedding day 10 years earlier and we enjoyed a wonderful time there. This trip ushered in the first chapter of our many travel adventures. Twenty-four years later we still travel, but in my case with less on top and more around the middle -- not so young and not so pretty.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

When in Rome...

Ten summers ago this month four of the five of us were visiting Rome for the first time. This was our second calling on a European capital and it felt exhilarating. The reality that we were in the Eternal City did not hit me until hours later at sunset when we stepped out onto the Hotel Diana's rooftop restaurant for dinner; our first meal in Italy. From our table we took in the panorama of the city. To the west we singled out the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the distance out of the countless ones that accent the city like stubby birthday cake candles. For a South Texas ranch kid like me the moment was near mystical and is seared in my memory forever.

Other than the landing at Fiumicino Airport, the hours leading up to that rooftop experience had been anticlimactic. At the airport we scrambled to purchase tickets for the train into Rome. We were vacationing in Italy sans tour group. As tourists we were on our own and after adventure. En route I found it disheartening to see all the graffiti on buildings and the litter along the train rails as we neared Rome's Stazione Termini. The city's central train station was just a couple of blocks from our hotel and the promised picture postcard perspectives would not be realized until we stepped out of the station and into the sun onto the Piazza dei Cinquecento.

With luggage in tow we hoofed it in the direction of the Hotel Diana. We would be bunking there for the next three days. In the months preceding our trip I had studied the tourist maps so often I could have found our hotel blindfolded. Of course, with the excitement of being so far from home in a European city, overconfidence got the better of me and I took a left instead of a right when we reached the corner of Via Cavour and Via Principe Amedeo. I got us lost for a short while.

Consulting the map in my hand instead of the one in my head we backtracked and were soon flopping down on the hotel lobby's couches. The relief that we could all stop moving was evident on our faces. At sunset on that rooftop restaurant my eyes zeroed in on the silhouette of St. Peter's and I could not wait to be on the move again.

I can see domes from my window right now, but these are in the desert adorned in colored neon and not nearly as old as Rome's.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

July 1992

I 'invaded' Grenada in July 1992. My wife and I were on board the Carnival Cruise Ship Tropical with friends when the ship paid a call to St. George's, the island nation's capital. At the time it was an unspoiled tropical island paradise with miles of uncrowded white sand beaches.

Our group was enjoying fun and sun on the beach when off in the distance we saw an outrageously colorful figure approaching. It was an native islander wearing a white muumuu with a hibiscus pattern and a wide-brimmed straw hat festooned with large flower blossoms. He was strumming a ukulele and singing at the top of his lungs. Not shy in the least, he walked right up to our group and flashed a big gap-tooth smile.

He didn't panhandle us but we knew that his colorful garb and happy singing was for that very purpose. He didn't find any such luck with us, but he was friendly and struck up some conversation. One from our group asked if he was present at the U.S. invasion back in October 1983. He claimed that he was in the fighting, but on which side he didn't offer. The same fellow from our group was curious about his opinion of Castro. Our island host said that he'd met the communist revolutionary in his younger days and that he had found him to be an intelligent and kind man; a good man he insisted.

We bade him farewell and he went off down the long beach to ply his trade with the other tourists. We were only on the island for a few hours and I found it to be peaceful and very laid back. That was a good afternoon. Today I find myself in a far less tropical setting.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

We Have the Stars

It is hard to fault the late-night drivers that zip through our pueblito from thinking to themselves... "God. This place. These people have nothing out here." I am guilty of the same. Driving the twilight hours through hamlets scattered like light bugs from South Texas to Yakima Valley I have had the same thought kindle in my head.

This evening I stepped outside barefooted to dump a bag in the garbage container, took a look around for a couple of minutes listening to the pueblito's nocturnal sounds, then directed my gaze upward. The canopy of stars in the night sky was awesome. People like us -- in the remote places of the earth -- we have the stars.

This starry photo is "borrowed." My camera does not take them this good.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Termite Tubes

In my former life discovering a termite tube near or on the foundation of my former home would have produced a sinking feeling in my gut. In the nineteen years my wife and I made our home there the termites never materialized, but the jitters represented by those wood-eating bugs never left me. The house was sold last year so the termite tubes don't spook me near as much now. These days the termite bogeyman pays visits in the new owners' dreams.

Out in the country the sight of the little mud tubes does not disturb me in the least. They are simply curiosities of nature encountered in the brush or pastures. The dry conditions seem to bring the little buggers to the surface in much great numbers these days. My little friend Evan thought they were cool, too -- even after I explained what they were and what crawled in them. He didn't mind touching them at all. The incredibility fragile tubes fascinated him. Running among the zillions of tubes sticking up out of the ground was great fun. He thought they were neat to look at. He marveled at their numbers in the field. Most of all, he got a great thrill dashing from intricate little formation to formation to formation to formation; crunching them underneath his sandals. He claimed to hear an almost indiscernible scrunching sound as he stomped them. I could hear nothing. He mashed so many of them underfoot the act became almost obsessive. Evan did not quit until sundown.

The boy enjoys the outdoors and doesn't mind getting hot, sweaty or dirty. I need to follow his lead. Move -- be more physically active. Sitting on my ass all day, even if it's at work behind a keyboard, is not good. I stepped on a doctors scale this afternoon. ¡Aye, Diosito! When the counter balance came to a rest I wished I hadn't stepped on the damn thing.

After the outdoors fun I made certain Evan washed his hands thoroughly.

True Bill / No Bill

I completed my 6-months of service in the Duval County Grand Jury this morning. It was the second time around. Listening to hour upon hour of criminal evidence shined a light on the dark side of life in the pueblito of Benavides and the surrounding communities. The picture isn't pretty and the future is not encouraging. The grand jury did its part. To see that justice is served on these true billed cases is now up to the juries that will hear the arguments and the judge who meets out what punishment, if any, is called for. I would like to introduce Judge Roy Bean's brand of justice to this part of the country for a couple of years. It would not be long before word got around not to ████ around with the law in Duval County.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Chlorine 2.0

A friend and I made a few extra dollars Sunday morning pulling someone's bacon out of the fire. Saturday afternoon the payroll and billing software crashed on the data clerk's workstation at the city's public water utility office. The gal working there, a very nice lady, was ready to quit her job. Payroll checks were scheduled to be cut before week's end and that just wasn't going to happen without her software operating in good order. But where in God's name does a desperate soul put in a call for technical assistance on a Saturday afternoon when the help is needed in a pueblito out in the sticks? The nice lady dialed my number.

Hello. Oh, that's bad. Sorry. Can't help you right now, nice lady. My brain is free but my arms are occupied holding all of my wife's purchases at Dillard's in Corpus Christi right now. How about tomorrow? I can be there in the morning. OK. Eight is good. Neither of us are regular church goers anyway.

By 9:30 Sunday morning the program was restored and running, but updating the tax tables was out of my league. I called my friend who is more familiar with the tax tables and such to come out and give me a hand. He doesn't attend services regularly either. Maybe that's why we don't get rain around here any longer. By 11:15 we were good to go and the lady was a happy camper once more. There would be checks in the mail.

The church pews were minus Chris Garcia this morning, too. He is the water utility's managing supervisor. Chris was in the office on a Sunday monitoring the system. He does it from the comfort of his desk -- scanning data displays on a computer screen. They call it remote water monitoring, logging and telemetry technology. It is impressive for a pueblito like Benavides. While I was there I asked Chris about a problem we have at home with the water. Seems that after a few washes my polo shirts fade or come out of the wash with splotches of discoloration. What gives? I ask. Too much chlorine, I joke.

His response wasn't funny. It is too much chlorine. Apparently, the water department is adding excessive amounts of chlorine to the water supply so that the customers who are furthest from the storage tanks can receive the full benefit of chlorinated water. Well, that is just fine, Chris. Does that mean that people like me who live only a block from the storage facilities get a concentrated dose of chlorine in our water at no extra charge? Yes, he says. I don't think that's funny, I say. Well, that's just the way it is. I suppose we should be grateful for our whiter whites. After I collect my fee for my Sunday services I'll buy a few polo shirts.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Carbon Footprint

Walking my two miles daily for light exercise leaves a big carbon footprint on Mother Earth. Instead of walking to the school's track for the added exercise, I drive the distance from home to the high school in my pickup. Covering that stretch on foot from the house would be more earth-friendly, but the dogs I would meet along the way would not be as agreeable as Mother Earth. A good number of them do not exactly come up to me wagging their tails; wishing to lick my hand and play.

Instead, many of the mongrels along the way think only of tearing flesh from bone -- human or otherwise, as long as they draw blood. Mother Earth doesn't do that. Nor does Mother Earth come at me snarling and baring her teeth. She does not lie in wait underneath a parked car -- charging unseen like a hungry wolf. Mother Earth will not collect to form a threatening pack of dogs at the end of the block with tails hung low and motionless -- scaring me shitless with a heinous chorus of low slavering growls -- then sensing fear -- fixing their murderous unblinking eyes on their prey -- blood red with savagery that says "you cannot escape." And I don't have to beat Mother Earth back with a stick every two or three blocks because she was raised to be mean and has no other purpose for existence than to tear a chunk out of a passer-by's calf. More importantly, Mother Earth will not force me to run for my life. She knows I am too heavy right now to manage more than a short jog. There are no animal control regulations enforced by the City of Benavides. There may be rules stated in back and white someplace, but the dogs can't read.

Screw Mother Earth. It is safer to drive.

Friday, July 10, 2009

12¢ Overnight

There was near dancing in the caliche-filled potholed streets of Benavides when people learned that the price of a gallon of gasoline had dropped 12¢ overnight. The big CITGO sign at the corner of 359 and 339 was turning more heads in disbelief than would have Lady Godiva had she been out for a morning ride. Customers pulled into the the Quik Pantry, stepped out of their vehicles, and looked up at the white 2-4-7 unsure if the night's sleep had completely left their eyes. For once people in town quit talking about how hot it's been -- even though the respite was only for a few hours. That twelve-cent drop wiped every other topic of conversation off the local radar screen. The number two spot for gabbing went to the fact that it's still the priciest fuel in all of the surrounding counties. By noon, however, it was the human day-to-day drama of small town living that bent one's ear. By quitting time this afternoon it was doubtful that some people could even recall what the old price of a gallon of regular had been that the day before.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Texas Senate Bill 9

BIG BROTHER, in the guise of Texas Senate Bill 9, was in Benavides this afternoon. HE was watching... and 'inviting' teachers in the middle of their summer break to 'come in' for fingerprinting and to 'volunteer over' every bit of their personal information to still another faceless state entity.

Teaching professionals, my wife among them, lined up like lambs to the slaughter before this nameless stranger at school today and got fingerprinted. Each person there then filled out and handed over to him a form containing their name, date of birth, birthplace, height, weight, skin tone description, eye color, hair color, race and ethnicity, social security number, Texas drivers license number, hand-written signature and details ad nauseam. The stranger then took the form and entered every bit of information on it into a laptop. He kept the paper form then drove off at the end of the day with all that information on his laptop. It's a bit frightening to think of all the strangers that have easy access to so much personal data.

They way the whip in Austin is cracked over our heads is very discomforting. The intent of this legislative measure is to identify school district employees and other individuals who have contact with public school students and check these individuals' criminal histories. All this to protect the children. I think it's just a scam to generate business for some politician's brother-in-law or something along those lines.

Our learned lawmakers in Austin have it backwards. I suggest that they seek ways to protect the teachers and those persons who have to deal with public school "students." Fingerprint the little darlings instead. Perform background checks on them. Identify the criminal element in our public schools that prevents others from learning. And let's not stop there. Run background checks on the parents. That's another story. Protect our schools, our teachers and those young people who are eager to acquire an education. All HE managed to do today was open the door a little wider to the specter of indentity theft.

If BIG BROTHER wants to 'watch'... then watch equally. That's all. I can't think of anything witty to say right now.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Las Vacas

The cattle have to go. They're pretty to look at and in good shape, but soon they need to be coaxed, prodded or pushed into a cattle trailer and hauled to market. There isn't enough time or cowboy left in me or my brothers to manage this bunch. We just plain got no heart for this sideline. We aren't ranchers. It's a wonder the animals aren't more skittish seeing how they've never been worked in the corral. The beeves are the progeny of stock my father was running nearly fifteen years ago before the cancer beat him. He took great pride in those animals. Many had names. Most of that bunch was sold at auction a few years ago, but three of them eluded capture in the brush. That's one reason we continue to look for a promise of rain and pray that what grass remains for them to feed on will outlast the dry spell. That trio of bovine that escaped a trip to the slaughterhouse went forth and multiplied à la Genesis. If anything, that wild bunch is prolific. We didn't become nearly as attached to the old bunch as did the old man. He gave many of them names. The ones that come to water these days don't have names. Collectively, they are known as las vacas.

Except for a bit of sentiment for bygone times neither I or my siblings have any measurable attachment to the animals, but it does sadden Mom to see them go. There is some pastoral quality about watching them graze in the late afternoon that helps keep her blood pressure down. I suppose they remind her of happier times, but she knows they've got to be rounded up and sold. Their days are numbered. She has asked plainly on more than one occasion. "¿Que vamos hacer con las vacas?"

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Snakes on a Fence

The heavens opened up and gifted the parched soil three-tenths of an inch of rain today thanks to the misfortune of a slithering rattler somewhere in Duval County. Undoubtedly, our benefactor was outdoors someplace when he came upon the miserable cold-blooded serpent and killed it -- dutifully hanging its lifeless form on the topmost wire of a barbed wire fence. That was a good break for all of us down here in the borderlands. Rattlesnakes have been relatively scarce compared to years past. I haven't killed but one since a four-footer coiled up comfortably not six feet from where we were lazily swaying on the porch swing about five or six years ago. The damn thing did not have the courtesy to shake its rattle in warning. It just sat there like a cow turd -- sniffing the air with its devilish tongue. I layed into it with a spade that was handy and argued about its bad manners later. I can't recall if it rained or not shortly after that kill.

As for today's shower, determining where the snake killing/hanging ritual took place is problematic because this is not an exact science, but the pueblito and surrounding area should be grateful that the person who visited death on the hellish creature respected this old brush country tradition. To be true to the practice, the killing, paired with the hanging, needed to have taken place immediately for rain to be guaranteed within two weeks' time. Cutting off the head or rattlers is optional and should have no effect on the rain-producing potential, but it is important that the snake's scaly belly be turned up, otherwise the effort is wasted. If no barbed wire fence is within walking distance a tall bush will do.

And there is no prescribed instrument to to carry out the ritual killing. A shovel, a hoe, a caliche rock of formidable size and weight, a solid mesquite limb, a .22 rifle, a 10 or 12 gauge shotgun, or even a handgun if the shooter's aim is not too shaky and he has a full clip or cylinder -- any potential weapon will do. My dad ran over several through the years with the pickup and hung them up quick to good effect.

Does anyone in 2009 believe this works to squeeze even one drop of rain out of the clouds? You would doubt it, but it's a neat old ritual. Happily, as long as there are people like me... rattlesnakes beware. Have stick... will kill.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mrs. Ross

But for the eleven dogs she spends a goodly sum on feeding, and the three Pekingese that enjoy their chow indoors, Mrs. Ross lives alone. She's been a widow for a number of years. Melba and I happened on this wonderful lady earlier this evening while she was out by her fence watering her agave plants. Initially, we drove by her place, waving to her friendly-like, but further down the county road came to a dead end and we reversed our course -- stopping to visit with her on the way back. We hadn't seen her in a good while, but she recognized Melba's pretty face right of. My mug took a second longer to register. Originally, we had intended to drive out to the track field and walk some laps before the place crowded up. The heat dissuaded us and we opted to cruise some back roads off State Highway 359 in the direction of San Diego. These county roads are all topped with caliche in Duval County and even at a slow pace my pickup looked like the Lone Ranger riding hard -- leading a plume of dust. In the confines of my pickup's cab the wife and I were spending quality time together -- no TV, no Internet, no radio, nothing but conversation.

Mrs. Ross lives nearly a mile from the main highway on a narrow road that makes a dog leg to the right before you come up on her place. It is ten miles out from Benavides. There is nothing of significance out there except for about a half-dozen souls living in their modest houses or trailers in the middle of five or ten acre ranchitos. It is isolated -- a good place to party recklessly or dump a body. But for the most part, Mrs. Ross enjoys a tranquil existence surrounded by a tangled thicket of thorny brush.

She and I used to teach for the San Diego Independent School District years and years ago. I left for another district and she remained, finishing out her teaching career. Her retirement did not last long and she hired on again with the SDISD. Got to keep busy or I'll go senile, she said. Mrs. Ross has always been a gracious lady. We had a good visit.

"Hang a snake on a fence," she shouted as we pulled away. It will take a whole lot of snakes hanging off barbed wire fences to make any kind of difference in the weather down here.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Sun's Anvil

The scene depicting a desert trek in David Lean's 1962 motion picture classic "Lawrence of Arabia" has the Sherif Ali character motioning to a distant horizon tortured by heat waves. He identifies the hellish no-man's-land they must cross on camel as the "Sun's Anvil."

I was there today. No, not the Nafud Desert. I didn't have to to feel like a Bedouin in a life and death struggle with the desert. Rather, it was the searing South Texas brush country baking under an ungodly 107° F -- and that was in the shade. The heat was brutal on man, a/c compressors and beast. Even six-legged pests had enough bug sense to lay low. I did not. After a light lunch I went to the Ranch. It would be a work-free afternoon spent cursing the elements from the shady comfort of the porch.

The only thing outdoors that did not feel hot to the touch was the cold dewy glass neck of the Budweiser in my hand. The porch cats that usually walk a figure eight pattern around our feet -- rubbing up against a leg -- were lethargic on the deck -- laying motionless, except for their quick panting. It was hot; too hot to purr. The dog was nowhere to be found. He had probably found a patch of cool earth in a shady spot somewhere to plop his belly on. The trees were void of birdsong and even the flies had made themselves scarce. Fresh cow paddies were baking solid on the ground before the flies could get to work on them. They would go hungry this week. And God have mercy on the countless illegal aliens making their way north through the brush. Some would never see home again. There wasn't one puffy white cloud in the sky offering a promise of shade.

Talk about the weather is overdone, but it can't be helped. It dominates the conversation down here. You can't avoid it any more than you can the oppressive heat. Do people these days even know what an anvil is?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

America

I love being an American -- proud of it, too. I relish freedom. My citizenship is an accident of birth and I make no apologies. The privilege did not cost me a cent, but it was not always so for some people. The Founding Fathers had such a hunger for liberty that they risked everything to satisfy it. In the process some lost their fortunes. Some lost their lives. They plotted to resist a tyrannical government possessed of the greatest military force in the world at a time when Revolutionary America had no army and no navy. It was madness to think of resistance, much less act on it. That was suicide. They had no money, nor any authority to stage a revolution. The British Empire possessed far superior manpower, experience and firepower. Americans' only earthly advantage was their lust for freedom -- for self-determination. They succeeded.

Today, to honor the sacrificial harvest of all the blood, sweat and tears they shed to secure the blessings of that hard-won liberty, we spend the day eating, drinking. listening to music, shooting off fireworks and generally having a jolly good time. So before you call it a day on this Fourth of July say a little prayer of thanks for the brave Americans who founded this great nation and another prayer for the equally brave Americans in uniform stationed around this wonderful world who stand vigilant against those who work to deny us our hard-fought freedom. Be reminded that the United States of America is... the home of the brave.

¡Salud America!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Wile Away the Hours

Looking up from the morning paper she turned in her chair and saw no one except the man with the badge and the cook. Two hours before the cafe had been filled with the morning's patrons -- the working set grabbing breakfast tacos before heading off to work and the seasoned-citizens staking their claim on the corner booths with cups of coffee to rehash threadbare stories from the day before and the day before that. The place was empty now except for the three, but she could hear laughter and a radio in the kitchen. The woman turned back to her paper. She hadn't come for the breakfast or conversation. Putting off the idle hours that stretched ahead drew her to the cafe every morning. It was better to surround herself with the noise of people even if she didn't know most of them. They were living their lives. Hers was spent. The balance between the two kept her sane. The hours ahead were always long and oppressively silent and therein lay the battle. How to wile away the hours? She wished she could get up, step outside and walk into the Benavides of her youth. The town had been alive with people and activity then. She remembered laughing so much when she was a girl.

Nos hicimos viejos, she sighed. Half the morning was gone. It was time to go.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

El Paseo

Walking is good exercise. In the early evening the high school track field serves as 'paseo central' for the diabetic, the hyper-tension-afflicted, the mildly obese or the health-conscious citizenry of the pueblito. They have the appearance of gleeful passengers strolling on the promenade deck of a cruise ship beset on all sides by waves of mesquite brush. Some complete the circuit quickly; others do not gauge their progress in speed. But the common denominator is a willingness of effort -- an inclination to develop or to maintain a sound body. Every group is represented -- the young, old and in between.

Traditionally, the park across the Catholic church was the venue for the evening constitutional. Fifty years of neglect has extracted a terrible price on its Spanish-styled gazebo, benches and lamp posts. With the grounds void of grass and trees that couldn't shade a squirrel, the city park is hardly an inviting place. The few who do not have the means to drive out to the high school track, or simply do not wish to, utilize the broad concrete walk that bounds the park for their walks. They turn a blind eye to the blight that was once the city's resplendent open air social center. These days it is the haunt of skateboarders and witless spray paint vandals.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What Lies Beneath

There are 120 feet of undulating packed earth from what passes for a street in front of our place to the concrete slab where we park our vehicles. These days that ground is tamped down about as hard as dirt can be compressed before you start calling it rock. However, as impenetrable as the surface appears, it stubbornly yields to the force of the wind that blows through here. Grain by grain the ground is giving up its secrets. In our case it is old rusty nails that have slept like dormant seeds just below the surface for years. But unlike seeds, these will punch a hole in a vehicle's tires. Not good. Lately, in the relative cool of the evening, I have had to walk slowly over the ground scanning for these little treasures. There must have been a nail factory on this lot that I am not aware of. These rusty pricks are everywhere.