Monday, August 31, 2009

No to Mr.Flournoy

It is embarrassing to admit that I was twenty-seven years old before I learned who Lucien Flournoy, the man, was. Back then the Fournoy name was familiar -- famous really. It still is. His company had a payroll that was spread far and wide, but that was about all I knew. Anyone in this area was familiar with his name, his company and his philanthropy, but my head wasn't screwed on too well in the summer of 1980 and all that familiarity escaped me. When I look back on my asinine condition thirty or so years ago I can only shake my head. 1980 was a rough year para uno tan verde y tonto como yo. The realization of how ignorant a young man I was pains me. It is one reason I cut many of these young fellows a lot of slack these days.

In the spring of 1980 I was working three jobs in order to meet my obligations. You can do that when you're young, and still have the energy to go dancing on Saturday night. At the end of that school year I resigned from my teaching job with the Alice ISD in Alice, Texas. There would be no bus route to drive in the morning or in the afternoon when the new school year came around. That was my second job. I'd had enough of that. I committed myself to full-time employment with HEB Grocery Company. That had been my third job after the bus route. Now I could give the company 110%. I was one of two night managers at the old Alice store at First and Almond. HEB was a tough and demanding outfit to work for back then, but the benefits were great. At the time I thought it was a good call.

The store had a check-cashing policy that limited our customers to cashing a personal check for amounts no greater than $25. The ceiling for payroll checks was $350; local entities only. The office employees, me included, adhered to the policy religiously -- no exceptions. It was the rule. There was no need to call Jesse Salazar, the store manager, to approve exceptions. It just wasn't done. If a customer proved troublesome, we simply fell back on the policy. Sorry, rules are rules.

One afternoon a well-dressed gentleman in a fine suit, flanked by what I took to be two subordinates, both equally dressed, stepped up to the office counter. One look told me this wasn't the everyday HEB customer. As usual, we were extremely busy on the checkout floor and in the office.

Yes, sir. How can I help you?
Yes. Thank you. Would you permit me to cash a personal check?
Yes, sir, of course.

The gentleman slipped a checkbook from inside his jacket, flipped it open on the counter with one hand and pulled a pen out his breast pocket with the other. They each seemed to match in design, the checkbook and the pen. I don't know why that image has stayed with me all these years.

Will five-hundred be acceptable? He hadn't begun to write on the blank check. I paused for only a second before stating the store policy to the man.
Our limit is twenty-five dollars on personal checks, sir.
His face registered no emotion.
I assure you the check is good for the amount.
His tone was calm, measured.
I'm sorry, sir. That's the store policy -- only twenty-five dollars on personal checks.
Oh, I see. Now, he paused for a second. I take it you cash payroll checks here?

I had a bad feeling about this. The line of customers requiring office service was growing behind him and it seemed as though every eye was on me.

You cash payroll checks for Flournoy Drilling, I take it? He continued.
Yes, sir. We do.
How interesting. Up to what amount?
We cash payroll checks for up to $350, sir.
Then you do cash payroll checks from Flournoy Drilling here.
Yes, sir.
How curious. Well, then. May I write out a check for $350? He slid the checkbook around in a small arch so I could see its printed face more easily. I recognized the last name on the check. My eyes went from the printed name to his face.
No, sir. I'm sorry.

My bad feeling got worse, but the gentleman remained composed. His pen went back to his breast pocket and the checkbook disappeared into his jacket. He looked right at me.

Interesting. His voice was easy; the words drawn out smoothly. You will cash my company's checks, but you won't take my personal check. Oh, well. Thank you. He turned on his heel and walked away, followed by the two that had flanked him. Neither ever spoke. I went on about my business. We were busy.

The next day the store manager, Jesse Salazar, called me over and asked me point blank. Did you refuse to cash a personal check yesterday for $500?
Yes, sir. I followed policy.
That was Lucien Flournoy. Jesse wasn't angry, but he wasn't happy either.
I was just following store policy, sir.
Yes. That's right, and you should. Good. But if he ever comes in here again it's okay to cash his check for whatever amount.

I don't have to call you, sir?
No. You don't have to call me.
Alright, sir. I understand. I'm sorry.
That's alright.

Jesse Salazar was cool about it. He liked me. He thought I was good HEB material, but I know I disappointed him that day. That was the only time I ever met Lucien Flournoy in person. I never saw him in that old store again. I didn't expect to. The man was a successful oilman, a philanthropist, an Alice legend and a perfect gentleman. When Lucien Flournoy was a young man I doubt he was ever as green and dumb as I.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Charquitos

Take an informal survey of little Latinos in the area who are five and under and you would discover that the word charco is absent from their limited Spanish vocabulary. They probably haven't seen, much less experienced, a good muddy barefoot splashing charco since the day they were born. Their Spanish tongue has been developmentally hindered because of these long spells of drought, but there is hope. The recent downpour, and the promise of more in the days to come, will soon have the kiddos singing 'charcos, charcos, charcos' through the pot-holed streets of the pueblito.

Odd thing about charcos: they are disgustingly filthy reservoirs of bacteria, germs and petrochemical runoff -- sitting in a soupy mix heated by the day's sun. When we were kids we used to play in these foul ponds to the point of total saturation and we never got sick. How? Today, a kid's world is sanitized, sterilized and spring fresh and yet they live in the doctor's office. Why? They may need a graduated exposure over time to charquitos, provided that we don't see more dry years. Start with the small ones for their little feet and then work them up to the mother-of-all charcos, la madre de charcos, el charco chingón. Those are the ones you can drown a full-grown adult in. Enough playtime in those and the immune system will grow strong and resistant enough to laugh in the face of the swine flu. Best of all, their Spanish vocabulary won't suffer so much.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Zebra Ranch

There's some property along FM 2295 that's been high-fenced. The owner transplanted about a dozen Texas Sabal palms and stuck them in the dry ground, spreading them out along the highway frontage. They haven't prospered in this drought and from a distance they look more like giant weather-worn pencils stuck pointy-end first into the dirt. They don't pass for trees. A few jut out of the parched ground at an angle as though they could teeter over with the next strong gust of wind. The intended tropical effect is lost in the sea of mesquite brush. It was a bold effort, but half of them died. The other half are topped with wind burnt palm fans steadily going from green to brown. The landowner's imagination is commendable, but he lacked the far-sightedness to arrange for occasional waterings. It's hard for any kind of vegetation, big or small, to spread roots in ground that in some places is sun-baked as hard as adobe brick. Undoubtedly, he exercised more faith in good fortune raining down from the clouds than most folks.

A zebra and seven scimitar-horned oryx (I had to look them up on the Internet) were seen behind that high fence as we drove to Kingsville this afternoon. I made a U-turn to have a closer look and rolled up slowly along the highway shoulder to snap a couple of pictures through the game fence. The zoo specimens weren't easily spooked and appeared to be as curious about us as we were of them. We had seen them before on many occasions, but not bunched up like this and so close to the fence line. Sometime back I thought I had spotted a bison in the mesquite brush, but Melba says I was mistaken. "It's just a big brown cow," she said. Melba has better eyesight than I.

To varying degrees zebras and scimitar oryx are considered endangered species. It is easy to assume that the land owner is doing his part to protect these beautiful creatures from extinction. What is peculiar about this sighting today is that I recently finished a book by Larry McMurtry titled Rhino Ranch. One of the threads in the novel deals with a Texas billionaire heiress who moves into the area and opens the Rhino Ranch, a sanctuary intended to rescue the nearly extinct African black rhinoceros. Who is to say that the same isn't being replicated here along FM 2295? I need to ask around. This much I do know. The high-fenced property is not called Zebra Ranch. However, the landowner may have to change the present name of the property if the remaining palms don't take hold. If in the event that is necessary a welder and his rig will have to come into play. The large steel letters spelling it out are welded solidly to the ornate metal gate of the ranch entrance.

Newsworthiness

I just learned this morning, quite by accident, that Elmer Kelton went to his eternal rest back on August 22. He was eighty-three. There wasn't so much as a squeak about it in the "what passes for news" media. America and the world loses one of the most gifted writers of Western novels and it doesn't even merit a crawl on a cable channel news ticker? $#!+

I place more value on his contribution to American culture than that of a boy-man with a plastic nose. I hate to sound like a broken record (kids would wonder what the hell that means), and yes, it's only a line from an old movie, but it speaks a truth and I will state again, "Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire."

Descansa en paz, Señor Kelton.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Man's Right

10:40 p.m. and it's raining... hard... plenty hard... good and hard... heavy. Dad used to say, "Nomas empiesa la esquela y comienza llover." He's been gone nearly fourteen years, but the man was right. The odd thing is that when the old man used to say that we were still in school and that was way back in the sixties when the school year did not begin until Labor Day.

The storm sounds loud in this little trailer house. We haven't weathered a rain storm in one of these things in over twenty years. The thunder shakes it up pretty good. If we were good Catholics we'd be lighting candles and praying a few Hail Marys.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

One Stop Place

This iPhone 3GS camera does a poor job in low-light situations, but it was all I had in my pocket tonight to capture the moment. It produces decent images when Mr. Sun is clocked in, but the geniuses at Apple should have engineered a flash feature on this thing. Tacking on a few extra shrinking U.S. dollars to the price tag for some flash would not have broken the bank. But, dark grainy photos aside, it's a small trade-off considering what a marvelous piece of engineering was packed into this phone. There could be a Mac in the distant future calling my name.

My friend Simon kicked off the precursor to the fall barbecue season with a ladies' night dinner at the restaurant of consensus. Women don't have the vote yet in this circle. The show of hands for holding it at Big House Burgers in Kingsville was unanimous. I had never been in the place. Everyone said the food was great -- really filling. Even the majority of online reviewers gave it a thumbs up. Not me, nor Melba. Perhaps we are getting picky in our old age. All the carnivores that frequent this establishment must worship salt. If I were King of the World the sign on the big posts outside would come down and a larger sign that read Super Sodium City would go up in its place. My order had more than just a pinch of salt in everything. The beer was ice cold, though. I did enjoy that.

Simon figures that if we treat the ladies to a night out every four months or so they won't mind so much giving their husbands up on Thursday evenings. That's our "meeting" night. They are held in his backyard alongside a dead-end street. The location provides a good bit of privacy considering we're still in town. On the agenda for the next nine months are barbecued fajitas, chicken quarters, baby back ribs, mollejas, miles of spicy sausage, tortillitas, baked potatoes, pico de gallo, carne quisada, the best rice and beans north of El Rio Bravo, artery-clogging machitos, T-bone steaks on occasion, and hot flaky butter-laden pan de campo. ¿Dios. Como voy a enflacar? Simon should really have his own outdoor cooking show. He does it all over mesquite coals. I once saw the man bake a pineapple upside down cake in a dutch oven.

Over half the membership failed to show up with their wives this evening. Mmmmmm? A dark harbinger of things to come on future Thursday evenings? We hope not, but sometimes Thursday evening places the male of the species in a delicate balancing act.

Simon calls our get-togethers "la junta." Membership in this boys-only club has fluctuated over the last ten years, but it's never lost its pulse. It goes on hiatus when the summer months come around, but the fall brings the promise of full bellies, cold beer and conversación de machos.

We give a thumbs down to Big House Burgers in Kingsville. Melba and I will stop there only once and tonight was it. "We should have gone to Whataburger," she said.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

textextext

I've known Janie since before the news of Robert Ballard finding the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic was all the talk. We go way back -- to my teaching days at San Diego ISD, Vaquero Country. Janie still works there. She's an institution -- an icon really. I expect they'll name a school after her one day. She texted me while I was enjoying some quiet-time finishing up McMurtry's latest.

I find it peculiar that we text each other so easily now-a-days, when years before we used to pick up the phone and simply converse like real people. Still, there is a quality of efficiency and order about the art of texting that I appreciate. Technology has rewired our brains. We communicate so differently today. Is it good or bad or neither? The jury is still out. Who sits on this jury? I'm confused. My brain needs rewiring. I have lived too long...

Did u get your books?
I don't know. The workaholic hasn't come home yet. She was suppose to pick them up.
They've been delivered to Nena.
Thanks, Janie. I appreciate you taking good care of those books. What days does Alonzo have band practice?
Monday and wednesday
I missed him. I'll catch him later and visit. I understand he has a large group this time around.
He stays there on mondays and wednesdays. It hasn't been finalized yet but the bbq club might go to Big House on Thursday
Big House is fine. Simon had the crazy notion of starting up the "meetings" this week, but thank God that Coach Guerrero talked him out of it and put him off for another month. This kind of heat could kill us boys at our age.
It could kill anybody!
I know it's killing poor wetbacks out in the brush without the luxury of BBQ ribs or cold beer. I guess us guys are fortunate.
Yeah you all are lucky thank God!
Our fortunes may do a 180 before long. We might soon be asking these fellows in the brush for directions to head south for medical care. I expect Old Mexico is going to have an economic boom pretty soon -- medically speaking.
Right on brother!
I am already brushing up on my Spanish lingo for medical terms just in case. I got a book -- a big fat one. When the time comes I don't want to cause el doctorrrr to misdiagnose me.
Do u remember a kid named Sergio Cantu. He is a doctor. Studied in Mexico.
No. I suffer from a "name-that-person" memory disorder. But my recollection of faces is excellent. There are some exceptionally gifted people come out of Vaquero country. He wasn't a guitar player was he?
He played sax in the band. I think your thinking of Rosendo Reyna.
Now you, Janie, have an excellent memory. You may not have any need to avail the services of any Mexican doctor for many many years. You must eat the right kind of brain food.
Thank you, Salas!
De nada, Juanita.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

ydslixaә

Dyslexia, the great crippler of a young small-town store clerk.

I Miss My Garage

I don't miss the garage we enjoyed in my old life nearly as much as I miss driving a clean vehicle all the time. That trick requires a little effort these days. In this new life the cars sleep outside -- exposed to the night's elements. Heavy dew blankets every surface in the early hours. The ground is scorched bare of natural grasses and our neighbor to the south just bulldozed about twenty acres of brush. There's dust everywhere and it coats everything. The dust was a problem long before our neighbor started his land-clearing project. The bulldozer work just compounded it. Our vehicles never wake up clean. At first light they are always caked in a fine layer of moistened dust. They require a good hosing nearly every morning. I can't say with any certainty what ill effect the arsenic in the water does to the finish, but it can't be helped. Neither of us is about to show up to work in a vehicle that looks like a dirty old shoe -- leaves a bad impression. That wasn't a problem in the old life. I miss my garage. That baby was built for two and was as clean and roomy as the church pews at the 6:30 mass on Sunday morning.

A clean vehicle is important where I work. You would think my bosses employed a team of Japanese gardeners from the looks of the landscaping at their business complex. These folks have high standards and a good deal of pride in their operation. It would be criminal to drive into the employee parking in a dirty truck or car. That is why I have to hose and wipe our vehicles clean in the morning. Who with any sense wishes to come across indifferent to appearances? Folks ought to make an effort to look their best, vehicles included. The same goes for their cats, dogs and yards. Keep it clean. I do miss my garage.

The landscaping where my wife works is measured by a different standard, but I try to keep her car clean and presentable anyway. It only costs me a little time in the morning and the work helps to moisten my toe nails for their occasional trimming. I do miss my garage.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mr. Sosa Can Swim

My little friend Evan... the kid who I could not convince to take swimming lessons back on July 21st... but was coaxed into doing so by his grandmother using two pretty little girls as the carrots dangling at the end of a stick... swims like a fish these days.

The picture I posted is a screen capture from an iPhone video. Instead of snapping pictures of the happy little swimmer I inadvertently shot video. Carelessness is a dangerous thing -- in or out of the water.

First Day

It has become increasingly difficult for the population to realize genuine excitement without the aid of chemicals or electronics. These days it just doesn't happen for some people, young or otherwise. What they conjure up for excitement is undoubtedly artificially induced. I know. I struggle with it myself. We've lost our sense of innocence. Somewhere along the way we lost our ability to find joy in what's real and true.

My wife emailed me some photos she took of elementary school kids arriving for their first day of school today. This bunch was genuinely excited just to be showing up this morning, as were their parents and the campus principal (T.P. Garza, a good longtime friend). I wasn't there, but I could sense their excitement in the photograph above and in the others she sent. Everyone was excited about the start of school. You can't package that genuineness in hard plastic wrap and power it with double AA batteries, nor retail it for $9.99. I hope these kids don't lose their innocence for a very long time. Sometimes it rubs off on you if you haven't grown too cranky with age. Childlike excitement, it's free -- chemicals and electronics are not.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tooth Fairy Inflation

Making fair value trades with the Tooth Fairy has out-paced the rate of economic growth in the U.S.A. My little six-year-old friend Evan lost a tooth a couple of days ago chewing on some tasty roast beef. The next morning he reached under his pillow and pulled out a five-dollar bill. The South Texas Tooth Fairy must be doing very well these days. Flashback to when I was six and I can remember the shiny dime the 1959 incarnation of the Tooth Fairy slipped under mine. It looked large in the palm of my little hand. Times have changed and so has the baby tooth economy.

Evan carries a wallet these days and that's where he slipped the five-spot -- along with his other greenbacks. His America is a land of great affluence, but with little appreciation for the value of a dollar. The five bucks didn't come from me. I'm not that loose with my money. I am reminded of the old Smith Barney brokerage house commercials from the early 80s. Their pitchman, the actor John Houseman, famous as the law professor in the film The Paper Chase, would look into the camera and proclaim, ''They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.''

I would have made a lousy Tooth Fairy. Evan's grandpa is better suited for that role. The kid would have got a shiny new dime from me and then I would have crafted a way for him to earn the other $4.90.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Poor Larry

The better part of my brain gets as excited going into a Barns & Noble as would the rest of me if I stepped into a Hooters franchise.., books, books everywhere. I love it. Melba and I drove to Corpus Christi so she could take advantage of the Texas Tax Free Holiday/Tax Free Weekend. She needed to shop for her back-to-school clothes. I don't care to spend hours in a Dillard's store. Strolling through that place weighed down by bags makes me feel like Superman locked in a room with a chunk of Kryptonite. It drains my strength. Instead, I drop the missus off at the mall and drive across the freeway to the Barns & Noble. She can spend hours shopping without having me look over her shoulder rolling my eyes at the numbers on the price tags. My time is better spent in a big comfortable chair with a good book. I'm a happy camper in a bookstore.

Simon & Schuster, Larry McMurtry's publisher, just released his latest book this month, Rhino Ranch. I've been waiting for this title since New Years Day. It is his thirtieth novel. Once inside the store I made a beeline to the literature and fiction section. It wasn't on the shelf. No. Of course, it must be in the New Releases section. I walk the length of the shelves, my eyes scanning the book jackets eagerly. I've had the novel's dust jacket design memorized for months. Nothing. Surely these people ordered it. Did the publisher skip sleepy little Corpitos? No. Wait. I know where it is. It has to be on the New Books carousel just as you walk into the bookstore. How could I have missed it? Thirty seconds later I find disappointment instead. The book is not here -- not in this store. How?

Stepping up to the help desk I find no one there so I wait. They'll know. I can't see how I missed it. I've already looked twice in the same places. This just can't be. It's a Larry McMurtry book. Every bookstore in the country has to have it now. A minute later and still no one comes to the help desk. Soon my eyes stop their anxious darting long enough to focus on the bottom shelf of the discount rack about twenty-five feet away.

Oh... my... God. There it is. Blue. It's Rhino Ranch -- released only eleven days ago and McMurtry's latest book has already been marked down twenty percent. Damn! Poor Larry.

I read up to chapter twenty-two before Melba called saying she was ready to go. Come get her. I felt bad for Larry McMurtry, but I was happy to get the book at eighty percent of the stated retail price.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Man Hunters

A little after six o'clock this evening Melba and I were again on the way to Kingsville "for a few things." If it were a toll road I would be a poor man. When I was a kid going to Kingsville was an event. Now, in my advanced years, it's like going to the corner store for the paper. Three-and-a-half miles west of where FM 2295 hits Highway 281 we spotted a clump of vehicles on the shoulder. They were far off. Usually, on FM 2295 we have miles and miles of highway all to ourselves. Border Patrol... I thought. Nearing the scene I slowed cautiously. Sure enough, it was a Jim Wells County constable and a conjunto of Border Patrol agents. They must have been trying to 'corner' a big bunch of undocumented tourists from south of the border. You have to admire these men in uniform. It is plenty tough to chase down men who want to desperately avoid capture in the tangle of brush we have down here. It doesn't take long before that network of thorns and cactus needles tears into a man's clothes and flesh. When he walks or crawls out of the brush he can look as though he'd been smeared with meat sauce and thrown into a small cage with a dozen starving cats crazed with hunger.


The agents weren't alone. They had some help from above. The Border Patrol's eye-in-the-sky was hanging diligently over the thorny tangle of scrub mesquite like a turkey vulture hunting road kill. I wanted to be up there with them hunting men, but I pressed onward. Melba needed "a few things."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Perseverance

Only Jesse knows how many times he tried to qualify to join the ranks of the U.S. Border Patrol. He never gave up. The man knew what he wanted. You have to admire his perseverance, his strength, his belief in himself. After a nineteen-week physical and mental crucible Jesse Dominguez graduated from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico. He is a Benavides native. This man has been assigned to the U.S. Border Patrol Laredo Sector.

His older brother drove up to attend today's ceremonies. He snapped pictures all day with his cell phone and sent them to his wife. She has an office down the hall from me. She in turn forwarded them to me and here you have one -- with a touch of Photoshop magic. We were all excited for Jesse today -- proud, too.

I Miss America

I miss the America where smoking was glorified and tattoos were low class. On the morning taco run yesterday I caught the last couple of seconds of a radio program. A man's voice said, "smoking was glorified and tattoos were low class." I have no clue what the content of the program was, but the words hung in the air like cigarette smoke. There was a truth in there. Collectively, we show little or no class in this country. Sure, America still has it, I see it pop its head up every once in a while like a prairie dog, but it's buried beneath a lot of rubbish.

Melvyn Douglas' character in the motion picture Hud speaks a couple of lines that encapsulates our condition very well. He looks as his grandson, played by Brandon De Wilde, and says, "Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire... You're just going to have to make up your own mind one day about what's right and wrong."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Right to Bear Arms

I was out in the brush this evening with company. The young man was firing off .22 rounds with a Browning Buck Mark. It was his, newly purchased. He made the action look so natural, as though the pistol was an extension of his arm. He'd bring it up, point and shoot -- right on target. It looked so easy it was encouraging. Of course, the kid had been raised around firearms all his life. They were as natural to his hand as a knife or fork.

"How much did it set you back?"

He gladly told me.

"Damn." Now I was really encouraged. I've procrastinated over the purchase of a firearm for years now, but the times they are a-changing. I liked this one. Besides, .22 rounds are cheap. I already exercise my 1st Amendment rights daily. It's time to work on the Second.

I Have the Power

"Look at the radar," one of the girls called out from her office. "It's coming this way. Lots of rain!" This was yesterday around three in the afternoon.

I pushed back from my desk and walked down the hall to have a look through the glass door. The building's entrance faces east. The sky was black. It's coming for sure I thought to myself. Look how dark it is. It's not going to miss us.

My pickup's windows were cracked about a half inch so I stepped out to the parking lot to roll them up. 'You're gonna scare the rain away' -- a little voice says in my head. The expression is something you have heard so many times growing up it peculates in your head when the prospect of rain appears. It's a silly thing people say to be funny. Who really can scare rain away? What idiot believes that? Who can possibly be that superstitious in the Age of the Internet?

'You're gonna scare the rain away
'

Back at my desk I take a peek at the local radar on weather.com to track the cell's progress. Yep. It's a big one, and a bunch more behind it. They're headed our way. The radar shows a big red spot right about where Mom's place is south of town. I give her a call.

"Are you getting wet over there?"

"Ni chispas, mijo," she says.

"Nothing?" That can't be.

As the minutes pass the red globs on the radar closing in on Benavides begin to fade. Outside, the sun breaks through the overcast. Not a drop was going to fall. Apparently, I have the power. Next time I'll stay right where I am seated and leave the windows alone.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Que Linda Está la Mañana

Tuesday is trash-pick-up day. It isn't a big chore to take it out. We are only two so we don't generate much. After months of drought and dry winds the ground has been swept free of loose sand. The uneven earth between our porch and the edge of the street where I set the trash bin down is packed hard and it feels good to walk on the cool surface in my bare feet at an early hour. There's a patch of rocky caliche at the end there that really stimulates the soles. The round trip is one-hundred and six paces. I just have to wipe my feet real good before I step back onto the carpet. Rain, when it comes, is going to create problems. Barefoot is out.

I set the trash bin down by the street at 6:55 a.m. and turned to face the growing light where the sky fell to meet the earth. There was something different this morning. Seventy miles to the east massive thunderheads were moving in from the Gulf of Mexico and the sun's rays where shooting out from behind them like jet afterburners. Against the brilliant blue it was a magnificent sight. And some fools say there is no God. The glorious display of light and shadow brought to mind a line from Las Mañanitas, the traditional for-all-occasions Mexican song.
Que linda está la mañana en que vengo a saludarte...
I nearly fell into song standing there, but I know better. I've heard myself sing and some things should remain hidden from the world. Instead, I went and got my cell phone and snapped a few pictures before all I was left with were dusty feet and a pleasant memory.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Speaking of Mariachis...

The Benavides school administration, faculty and staff launched the start of a new school year this morning. They hosted educators from some of the surrounding districts too; San Diego, Premont, La Gloria, Ramirez, even a handful from Kingsville. I would have enjoyed being there. The first day of Inservice Week always gave me that "all is new" feeling I wake to on New Year's Day. A week spent with my former co-workers would have been fine with me. Fine until the first period bell rang the following Monday and that flood of teenage hormones poured into my classroom. In that instant the new feeling would escape me faster than the soul exiting the body at the moment of death. It's a disturbing thought, making me content to stay right where I am in my little desk job. Silence is golden. I can visit with my former co-workers at another time.

My wife says that people asked for me. That was nice of them. A few mentioned to her that they would go by and visit with me. I'm only a few blocks away. They have my number. Only one came by. That's all right. Who feels like visiting after a long day of sitting and listening to presentations focused on curriculum, sustainable goals and classroom management -- then having to fight off that wonderfully heavy drowsy feeling after a big lunch? No power on earth can keep the eyelids open. Quite frankly, it's boring. A friend of mine put it this way. "They give us the same present every year. Only the wrapping paper is different."

No. Only one came by for a visit. Delia Garcia, a proven educator, a great human being and a fine lady. We visited about staff who have come, gone, transferred, retired, faded away. She mentioned about the San Diego ISD losing their amazingly gifted band director, John Vela, to the Ben Bolt/Palito Blanco ISD. We talked about his second career as a mariachi musician. Delia and I both adore mariachi, agreeing that John Vela is an exceptional talent in that respect.

We talked of the incessant heat. I recounted a humid August afternoon when mother turned eighty and we surprised her with a live mariachi band at the Ranch. It was John Vela's group. How they perspired under those splendid embroidered suits -- it was so hot.

I thanked Delia for the visit. We wished each other luck in the coming year even though I was well into the eight month of mine. But I understood what she meant. For teachers late August is their start. We continued to wave to each other as she pulled out of the parking lot and the image of those sweaty mariachis serenading the new octogenarian three years ago on a hot August day stayed with me the rest of the day. Good mariachis pretty much follow a creed -- same as postmen. Neither rain nor snow, nor sleet nor dark of night shall stay these mariachis from the swift completion of their musical engagements.

The mariachi image followed me home from work. I wrote a short story about one musician working in the cold. It's too hot to write about hot. Cold is easy to imagine in August.

---
Ayy..., ayy..., ay, ayyy...

It was getting colder and the heater in the van wasn't helping. Juventino and the other musicians had one more gig to play then he could get back home to his family for Christmas Eve. He hadn't wanted to commit to working tonight, but the money was too good to pass up. Only the night before some girl's boyfriend possessed of too much money in his pockets and too much alcohol in his brain had offered to tip the band a hundred dollars if they could play "Besame Mucho" for his girl. They played it. They could play all the favorite songs. The happy young man paid the money, adding another fifty because he liked the way Jesse played his trumpet. He was drunk enough to be overly generous, but not so drunk that he couldn't appreciate good music.

"I wassa trumet payer tamiennn...,"
he would say. "No so goo like youuu.... I wassa trumet payer." We gladly took his money. The girl gave us a look, however.

But tonight, the memory of those dollars was doing little to keep Juventino warm. Silently, he cursed Julio for being so tightfisted with the group's profits. With all the good money they were earning from their regular gigs surely he could buy the group a new van or at least a used one with a working heater. They were making very good money now, but it had not always been that way -- at least not for Juventino.

He thought back to the time when he had to paint houses and wait on tables to make ends meet, playing mariachi music on the side. Those had been very hard times for his family. Playing for a mariachi had been the only thing he had ever wanted to do since he was a little boy. One of his earliest memories was of standing alongside his grandfather learning to play el quitaron. It was the big restaurants in the zona turistica that increasingly sought mariachis to serenade diners. It was there where Juventino gained experience and perfected his art. The problem was that very few musicians managed to make any real money performing mariachi in Mexico City, so at the urging of his brother-in-law the family packed up and moved to Los Angeles. The work and money were plentiful there, but the city and the air were as dangerous and as dirty as Mexico City's. Worse still, the rented house and neighborhood where his family lived was little better than what they had before they crossed to the North. He wanted better for his growing family. As much as he loved performing mariachi, his family came first.

Friends told him that he could make better money in Denver, Colorado if he didn't mind the hard winters. Juventino asked his friends that if the opportunities were so great in Colorado why didn't they pack up and go themselves. To a man they told him that it was the winter cold that prevented them. In one instance a friend of a friend of a friend had been killed when a spear of solid ice had skewered him. It had fallen from the great height of a tree. The thought of dying such a death so far from their Mexico querido was extremely distressing and so they remained firmly rooted in the moderate climate of southern California. Regardless of the terror of falling ice spears the change sounded promising to Juventino, but the thought of cold, especially long cold nights, was discouraging. Nevertheless, he uprooted his young family again and moved, finding construction work quickly in Denver. The neighborhood they settled in was certainly nicer than what they had left behind.

There, he met Julio who had formed and led one of the most popular and requested mariachis in the Denver area, Mariachi Mi Tierra. Nearly all the members had learned to play mariachi from their fathers in Mexico and were now making a lucrative living in Denver. Once Juventino established himself with the group the income, and his family's standard of living, rose steadily. Much of the demand for their music came from Mexican families who found themselves far from their roots, wanting a touch of tradition at weddings, birthdays, funerals and their daughters' quinceañeras. On other occasions their services were in demand around tables on Sunday afternoons over food and drinks at family gatherings whose roots were in Mexico. They savored songs of ranches home, horses, or lost loves. Juventino enjoyed how their music touched people. When they played a certain sound or note it would affect the people greatly. Their music triggered something from their past or from their home town. One or two could get so stirred by the music they would explode con un grito. In those instances the group would feed off the energy of the people. The gigs from the Mexicanos were steady, but it was in the communities of the Anglo suburbanites who were willing to spend $2,000 and more for mariachis to entertain guests where the real money lay.

Yes, his dreams for his family and his music were being fulfilled, but at the moment he was terribly cold and he was desperate to go home to his family on this Christmas Eve. He was beginning to think about his friends back in Los Angeles and what they had said about the cold nights in Colorado. They had not been exaggerating. They knew what they had been talking about -- and Juventino avoided walking under tall trees after an ice storm. If the ice did not kill you, the cold would. His grandfather were alive he would not believe this cold.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Instrucciones Para What?

When I was a kid a thousand years ago English used to be our nation's tongue. ¿Que paso? Somewhere along that stretch of time between then and the day I qualified for AARP membership a language mix-up occurred in the good ol' USA. I was reminded of that at lunch today. It's Sunday so the kitchen stays clean. I pulled out a frozen pizza, looked on the back of the carton to read what temperature to pre-heat the oven to and I read INSTRUCCIONES PARA HORNEAR. Hornear? Hornear is not in the Tex-Mex lexicon. We used to speak English in this country, dammit. I repeat... ¿Que paso?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Natural Color

School personnel report to work this Monday in preparation for the new year. Naturally, my wife, the workaholic, is at school on a Saturday. She may have her nose buried in her work, but she is not afflicted with tunnel vision. She was aware enough of the world to notice a patch of bluebonnets outside the library window. It only took a few sprinkles from Thursday's brief shower to coax some color out of the earth. The flowers were so pretty in the morning sun she snapped a picture with her Blackberry® and sent it to me. Isn't that sweet?

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Year Ago Today

One year ago today life was very different for Melba and me. We left the old life behind and began an adventure in Japan. I had retired from teaching in June and Melba got a job with the Department of Defense Education Activity to work as a librarian/media specialist at The Sullivans Elementary School in Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka, in Japan. Back home we had rid ourselves of nearly everything we owned, house included, and boarded a plane for Tokyo. Today, the whole experience feels like a strange dream I just woke from. What follows is my first blog post after our first day on Yokosuka Naval Base.
---
First Order of Business

On our first full day here you would think that the powers-that-be would have the new arrivals on base procure their military IDs and and begin arranging for housing. We're living out of two suitcases right now in the Navy Lodge. I would have thought these two concerns would have been the first order of business. This was not the case. We spent our first day sitting in the base movie theater with a couple of hundred other new arrivals (military and civilian) listening to seven hours of an Introduction to Japanese Culture presentation. Yes, it was very informative, but I would think there were more pressing concerns to address, as I just mentioned. Many of those in attendance thought so too. We were fortunate that we did meet some extremely helpful people today. We still can't believe we are here.
---
Another thing I learned is that all the public computers in the Navy Lodge and at the base Public Library are "locked down" pretty good. I will not be able to upload any pictures until my laptop arrives from the States.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Una Tormenta Chica

I am long out of practice, almost losing the instinct to rush out and roll up the truck's windows when it begins to rain. Opportunities to jump to action at the first splat of rain on a window pane have become rare. One of the girls called out, "Oh my God! It's raining!" We were doubtful at first, but while we stood by the office window enjoying the look and sounds of the surprise shower a couple of minutes passed before I realized that the windows of my pickup were cracked open. I can't explain why I ran out in a panic. It's only water and I knew it couldn't last very long. Low clouds had moved into the area and hung there most of the day, but no one thought much of them. None of the body-sensitive employees voiced a complaint about the ache of old surgeries, bone breaks, nose jobs, dental work, absent ovaries, uteruses or injuries signaling a falling barometer. The small rainburst was a surprise, leaving puddles that didn't disappear too quickly, but I guarantee tomorrow there won't be any evidence that one drop fell. The mercury will climb to 103, 4 or 5 and the windows will be cracked about a quarter-inch in the pickup.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hope from the North

video
Someone around here calls out, "Look! A cloud!" and all heads turn. It is getting to where any puffy formation in the sky can get rain-starved South Texans licking their lips with anticipation. Whether it is large or small, we dare not look too long or hard at the moisture-laden cloud fearing that we'll jinx our chances for a good shower. Memories of decent rains exist only in the minds of people born before 1985. The younger set has only seen a good gully-washer via special effects in the movies. It's unfortunate that all they've known around here are conditions more common to the Chihuahuan Desert.

Oh, there was an exceptionally wet season here a couple of years back that left us with waist high buffel grass. We don't much remember the rains that brought about the high grass, but no one here will forget the mouse infestation the heavy vegetation fostered. Everyone has a mouse story. Now we have this drought. There were no wildflowers along the highways this year. What you're more likely to see are big black burn patches from small grass fires that are happening all too often.

Late this afternoon there was hope from the distant north. A line of mountainous thunderheads took form on the horizon. Somewhere someone was getting wet, but it was all happening three Texas-sized counties away. We didn't get so much as the scent of rain, but hope blew in with the wind and for some that was enough to remain optimistic. Me? I adhere to the old adage, "Si va a llover, va a llover." There is no need to worry about it. The damage has been done to the ground already. Recovery, when it is realized, will be years in the making. Live long enough and you will recognize the cycle. What's needed soon is the kind of three-day rain that fills the Agua Poquita Creek making it run so high it almost laps the highway bridge on Highway 339 ten miles south of Benavides. I haven't seen that happen in a very long time.

On the drive to Kingsville today to pick up "a few things" the sight of that humongous thunderhead pouring down a blessing on parched country one-hundred miles away coaxed me to pull out my cell phone and capture the phenomenal wonder on video. That pile of clouds was probably six or seven miles high. Glorious!

My thanks to the late great Nelson Riddle for my short video's background music. It is the 1962 Grammy Award winning theme to the old television series route 66, television programming at its finest.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Simple Pleasures

After a hot shower toe nails are so easy to clip. Better still, being able to bend at the waist without busting a gut or a vein in your head just to reach those toes is an under-appreciated pleasure. Some of us take it for granted that we will always be able to touch our toes -- standing, sitting or whatever. A good part of the population down here can't even see their toes from a standing position. And best of all is performing the clipping operation while sitting on the porch steps in the relative 90° "cool" of the evening as the sun colors the sky before sinking below the western edge of South Texas. It's a refreshing experience and a simple pleasure that takes me back to when I was a barefoot kid running along the dirt roads around my childhood ranch home.

Even then I was aware of the good quality of my feet. Grass burrs were hardly a concern. In His wisdom God saw fit to retard my vertical reach, leaving me a stunted five-foot-six in adulthood, but He blessed me with exceptionally good feet. They are as tough and durable as a 16-ply tire, yet pleasingly attractive. I'll go so far as to say that I could be a foot model. My feet are fifty-six years old, but they could pass for twenty-five. They are my best feature. I've told my wife that if I go first I want an open coffin; head to toe -- leave the feet exposed. And if the mourners are moved to come up and lightly brush their fingers against my cold lifeless footsies, I don't have a problem with it and neither should she.

It's nice to sit out here feeling fresh and clean, listening to the sounds of the pueblito. Far to the north I can just see a formation of turkey vultures orbiting high above the dry brushy landscape. They're hungry. The times are lean for them also. There isn't enough road kill to go around and it is a struggle. Watching them move slowly across the dimming sky acts as a calming elixir for my spirit.

Now, the toes are done..., the feet feel good... and the body is rested. They're simple pleasures.

Monday, August 10, 2009

No Gas for You

Melba and I have a long-standing rule we accept without opposition or question: NEVER EVER GO TO BED WITH LESS THAN A HALF-TANK OF GASOLINE IN EITHER VEHICLE. You just never know what will occur overnight. If you lived here you would understand. A rule like that is necessary when your pueblito is far-removed from the great urban centers of South Texas and damned with only one establishment to purchase gasoline from. I may have mentioned it once before. There is no ambulance service here. The closest one is in San Diego, sixteen miles away, and they in turn have only that one ambulance to service their city. The next closest is in Freer, twenty-four miles away. We're on our own out here, so you had better make certain there's enough fuel in the vehicle to make a run to the emergency room in Alice, twenty-six miles away.

This morning there was no gas at the pumps. That can be a major problem for a good number of people here. Most folks drive a good distance to get to work. People usually come home to Benavides after a long day at work for their dinner and to get to bed. That's why it's called a 'bedroom' community. The wife and I are fortunate. We're only a few minutes' drive from work. On most days we don't require any more gasoline for our vehicles than it takes to light up a small stack of mesquite for a barbecue, but most of the labor force in town guzzles up enough fuel on their drive to work to set old Atlanta ablaze like in Gone With the Wind.

This morning is not the first time plastic bags have been found wrapped around the gas pump handles. The Pakistani dudes that operate the Kwik Pantry don't offer much of an explanation. "So sorry, please. We just do as we are instructed." Long before anyone pulls up to a gas pump from the main highway the bags speak loud and clear. No gas for you.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Goldfish at the Alamo

Evan had been to Alamo Village near Brackettville, Texas to run around the old John Wayne's old Alamo movie set. He loved the place. It was a great playground for a little boy. Today, for the first time in my memory, we had to wait in a line to get into the real Alamo. It was hot, too. Excluding holidays, parades and fiesta days, downtown San Antonio was the most crowded I have ever seen it. There were lines everywhere into everything in everyplace. I never realized the tourist crowded was so interested in the Alamo story.

So I give my little friend a tour of the shrine and the grounds and he listens attentively, asking good questions once in a while. When we came across the acequia filled with large koi fish -- the ghosts of the Alamo and I lost him. He was fascinated with those beautiful fish. The Texas history lesson was over.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Absolutely Fearless


Evan is only six years old and fearless. We took my little friend up to Natural Bridge Caverns north of San Antonio. Every boy should experience at least one cave and he enjoyed this cavern tremendously, but for Evan the memory that will linger from this day long after I am in the grave will be his time on the Zip Line.

The Zip Line experience involves donning a body harness and helmet, climbing stairs to the top of a 50-foot tower, getting hooked to a cable that runs from the tower to a lower point some 350-feet away, and then stepping off the platform for a thrilling zip through the air like a superman. The kid did it... didn't scream like a girl or even close his eyes. He is absolutely fearless.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Never Felt So Good

The sun never felt so good on my shoulders as it did at noon today. I went home for the lunch hour and wanted nothing better than to strip down, lay by a sparkling pool for hours and just soak up the rays. I wasn't even hungry for anything salty, sweet or inbetween. The sun never felt so good. But... minus a swimming pool or the time to indulge myself... I instead absorbed a good dose of vitamin D while watering the dying bushes in front of the trailer house with the pueblito's arsenic-laden water.

When I drove back to work and stepped off the pickup I didn't want to go inside. I felt like a sunflower. Sunflowers just stand there and don't work. They just bask, following the arc of the sun across the bright sky. The light was luxurious. I need to go to a beach or something.

What a crazy thought. I'm dying for some sun while God knows how many non-documented tourists from south of the border are dying under the same sun in the South Texas brush. It's crazy.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hiroshima

Hiroshima is one of the most vibrant cities Melba and I have ever visited. It is an unimaginably gorgeous place. Sadly, the specter of atomic war and the absolute destruction that is synonymous with the name of this city cannot be ignored when one finds themselves strolling through its busy streets. The looming awareness of the fiery hell that ruptured the calm of an August morning in the clear blue sky above this beautiful city sixty-four years ago today is unsettling.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Recycle Wednesday

My brain was very tired when I got home this afternoon. Mucho trabajo at work. I napped (slept deeply really) from 5:30 to 9 o'clock. Aye.. que lindo sueño. I get up and find that my wife, who is the school librarian, media specialist, campus technician, you name it, has a major school project she wants me to "help" her with. I tell her, "I thought I retired from public school?" Her delicious lips didn't move, but the glint in her brown eyes said "yes and maybe no." I finished up at 11:15 p.m. leaving no time for a decent blog post. No picture... nada. My brain's tired again. Instead, I offer a very short story I committed to writing a couple of years ago. I don't even have a name for it.

***
(Loosely based on an actual event.)

Again, the day's fishing had gone badly for her husband, Ignacio, and their youngest son, Manuel. Josefina already knew what the conversation would turn to at supper around the kitchen table tonight. She wished that things would go better for her family, but with each passing year it seemed to her that the Virgin heard her prayers less and less. They had already sold their home of fifteen years to raise money to pay off the doctor bills they had incurred when her husband had been hurt in a boating accident. Now they were living with her oldest son and his wife. It had not been easy. The house was very small.

---

Manuel was the first to finish supper. He was a fast eater. "The shrimp season lasts two months. To make enough money to get by you have to catch 800 kilos. It's impossible to catch that much. Papa and I caught 230 kilos in a month and a half. It's just impossible to catch what we need to survive."

"This pueblo is dying," said his mother." There are so many young people who've left. There is no future here."

"As fishermen... it's no good," added his father. "The only other thing to do is to sell drugs. That's what a lot of people here do. I know. They don't say, but I know."

"They show too much," agreed his mother.

"Those are the ones who have something," he continued.

"Mama, it would be better for us if I went to look for work en el norte."

"You would do better staying here, son? The girls in Guaymas are going to miss you if you leave," his mother said, half joking. She knew this was coming. She was afraid that he'd really want to go this time.

"All the girls who are after me want to get married," Manuel said.

"They don't know you're running away from them," said his father. "Wait until word gets out."

"I'm not running. I want to go work. I want to make some real money. Anyway, those girls are starving to death. Until you have something to offer them... I don't want to go rent a little apartment and work in a factory making eighty pesos. I don't want that. Eighty pesos! How much does Victor make, Mama?"

"He makes over 100 pesos. They gave him a raise. You should see if he can get you work there. I am always telling you."

"He suffers a lot Mama. He is always stressed out."

"Yes, Manuel, but he wants to go to the U.S. too, just like you, only legally."

"I cannot wait that long, Mama. This house isn't mine. It's theirs. I want something like this for me one day," motioning his arm in a circle around them. "If I get over there I can have a house like this. If I stay here I won't. I'll just be a kid who lives off his parents, lazy. Maybe I'll pick up addictions because it's boring... not doing anything."

"But what about your music, Manuel?" Afraid that he was close to deciding to leave, his mother tried another approach. "Don't you always say that you want to do something with that?"

"Regardless of my music, I have to leave this place to work. There is no work here. Everyone is leaving. Why do you think people leave this place? They know it is more difficult en el norte, but they go to struggle, to work. People go for one, two, three years and they make it. They send money home to build their house one room at a time. They live over there and come home every three years... and they do it without papers. They cross. They go back for four or five years, but they send money home. They have a bank account. So, maybe I think that it isn't harder over there."

His mother, her eyes cast down, sighed with emotion. "Not everyone goes, Manuel. Some people think it's better to stay here... in Mexico."

"I think only you are the one who believes that. Tell me why so many of the young ones go to el norte if Mexico is so nice?"

She looked at him, tears welling up in her eyes.

"Mexico is nice for the rich, but for the poor, like us, it isn't." Manuel continued.

"I have heard about a cemetery in Arizona, near the border, where many of our poor are buried. I am sure they thought just like you... that they had no choice... that they had to leave," his mother's hands were wringing her apron tightly." There are so many unmarked graves you cannot count them in a day, they tell me."

Manuel just looked away. Josefina knew that he had made up his mind.

---

On the sofa where he slept at night in the tiny living room , Manuel was sorting his clothes. His mother could only watch. She had no argument to offer.

"I have everything organized here, towels and everything... and I know that when I'm far away I won't have anything in its place."

"What will you take with you?" she asked.

"Clothes. I imagine two or three changes at least."

"Is that all?"

"What else?" he thought aloud. "Some photos."

"And do you have a little money saved?" she stood in the doorway, subconsciously blocking his exit, imaging that she could still persuade him to stay.

"For the trip? Yes." He saw how she seemed to be trying to make her small frame appear large in the doorway.

"And for when you get there? Will you need more money. You will have to take more."

"No, that would be too difficult. No one does that."

"So what do you do when you get there?"

"Where? El norte?

"Yes, Manuel," with a little anguish in her voice. "To the United States?"

"I don't know. I've never been there. You know that. I don't know what I'll do, but I'm not stupid."

"How much money will you have in your pocket when you go?"

"I don't know... it will have to be dollars... I don't know how much."

"You have to be very careful over there. People aren't the same over there." He's too young to be leaving she thinks.

"You have to be careful with people up there." From the bedroom his father, watching the small television, had been half listening to their conversation. He comes to stand by his wife.

"I already told him," said Josefina. "That's exactly what I said."

"Yeah, they're all rich over there," said Manuel.

"That's not what I mean," injected his father.

"We're worried that you're leaving," said Josefina, "...and when you will return." She retreats into the small bedroom to gather her thoughts. She does not want to cry so much in front of her son.

Ignacio follows her leaving his son to his task. He does not wish to pressure the boy.

"It feels like a lie, but I guess it is really happening." Josefina is getting very emotional now, but she has resigned to the fact that her son will be leaving.

"Everything is going to come true for Manuel. Nothing will happen to him," Ignacio assures her.

"He runs a hundred percent risk," she tells him. "You know that."

---

Later that evening Manuel begins to get his gear ready. His mind is made up. His brother knows where to take him to begin the hop north. They have been talking about it for weeks.

"Mama! Some socks. I need two pair."

"Socks?"

"Yes."

"Should I pack your green shorts?" She doesn't know what else to say. She wants to tell him not to go, but she knows the time for arguments is past.

He just looks at her. She's crying again. She turns and quickly goes into the kitchen.

Ignacio is there having coffee with a cold biscuit.

"I'm worried because he is so trusting. He's too trusting. He isn't suspicious of anyone," she says.

"I am worried, too," he agrees. "but the boy has made up his mind to go. What can we do?"

"There must be good coyotes and bad coyotes," she says. "How will he know?"

Ignacio only looks down at his hands, squeezing his calloused fingers. He says nothing.

---

Early the next morning Manuel is ready. His duffel bag weights nearly fifty pounds. Manuel's father knows he will probably have to throw half its contents away before he crosses. "Mijo, let me get that for you," he says, lifting the bag. He carries it out the front door and sets it down by the front gate. The sun is just coming up.

Manuel's older brother brings the truck around to the front of the house and notices the enormous bag that his brother has packed. "What! Are you never coming back?"

"It's all my clothes, since yours won't fit me. Otherwise I would take some of your nice shirts," Manuel lifts the duffel bag and sets it down in the back of the pickup. He turns around and his father is standing, facing him, his face trying not to show any emotion.

All Manuel can offer is a barely audible, "Papa."

His father hugs him hard, patting his back. "Take care of yourself, mijo."

Josefina stands by the gate, holding on to the post to steady herself. She is smiling, but her eyes are streaming tears. Manuel walks over to her, hugs her gently, lovingly, kissing her cheek.

"Mama," is all he manages. He will not cry in front of his father.

He turns quickly and steps into the truck. "Go quickly. Go quickly," he says to his brother.

Not until they turn the corner does Manuel allow the tears to flow. His brother fixes his eyes on the road, allowing Manuel a little privacy.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Four Score and Three

Mom turned eighty-three today. Until this morning she was unaware that she shared a birthday with Obama. That date on the calendar is probably the only thing the two have in common. Mom is a natural-born citizen. I have seen the birth certificate. I don't recall her ever entertaining the idea of becoming president, but I have heard her curse presidents -- starting back with Lyndon Johnson. Viejo orejón is how she described the great Texan in those dark days following the Kennedy assassination.

A twenty-one year old Maria Magdalena Mercado Salas came to the Ranch as a young wife in winter of 1947. Her first-born was only six months old when they moved there. Dad had been working for the M.M. Miller & Sons oilfield operation for four months when he brought his small family to live in ranch housing that was little more than a two-room house with a tiny screened porch. It was the first place they lived in that had indoor plumbing. Nearly sixty-two years later Mom is still on the Ranch. She's outlived everyone who owned, lived, hunted, worked, or played there when she first set foot on the property. "Me hice vieja en este rancho," she says. She genuinely loves the South Texas rural life. The octogenarian grew old on the property and it is practically the only home she has ever known. "Es todo lo que he conocido." When she says that it is though a time line filled with her personal drama, joy and sorrow becomes compressed in her mind's eye and she sees and feels all the years in that instant. It is a good life -- a landscape of hills and valleys and mostly sunshine.

We didn't hire mariachis to serenade Mom on her birthday this year. Just how many times can you listen to Las Mañanitas? We took her out to King's Inn in Riviera. My brother-in-law wanted to barbecue black Angus fajitas at the Ranch, but come on! It's a tad on the warm side in the evening. The birthday girl deserves a change of scenery. Besides, with this all-consuming drought, it's pleasant to eat by the shallow waters of Baffin Bay and no one can beat their fried fish or that incredible Bombay salad.

The boys were drinking beer and Mom resisted the temptation to imbibe. She had taken her blood pressure medicine only hours before. ¡Ah, pero qué chihuahua! It was her birthday and all but one of her half-dozen chicks were about her at the table. She motioned to the waiter, a tall and ruddy blond-headed boy... "I'll have a Budweiser, please."

Monday, August 3, 2009

I have lived too long...

When I was a kid weed was about as common as a UFO sighting. In the pubelito these days it is like the dust, ...everywhere and on everything. Instead of checking report cards we have parents checking their kids' piss. I have lived too long... and seen too much.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

El Conejito

In answer to a friend's question back on December 18th I said, "day-to-day existence can be interesting on any point of the globe." He believed that my wife's and I moving back to Benavides pretty much marked an end to the tales I posted on my former blog from across the sea. He had it wrong. I started new, picking up where I left off in the old life. Day-to-day existence can be enthralling whether a man, a woman or a child gets out of bed to wash their face in a place like Paris, Tokyo, El Paso or even Benavides. It's real. What other people experience draws our curiosity. What they do, say and hear can be engaging. Everyone has a story. It is in the telling that makes us turn an ear or a page -- or bookmark a blog.

This morning I was reminded of that. It's the human element in a blog that keeps us coming back. (1) I follow a single mother's blog from the San Francisco area. She reaches into her soul and releases her musings like dandelion seeds into the wind of the Internet. (2) There's this young fellow in his early twenties who left home to teach English to kids in a Japanese school in Yokosuka. He writes about the simple things; food, shopping for socks, getting lost in a foreign city, making new friends, etc. He's no Hemingway, but he writes about a place I saw with my own eyes, and he is there now. I am not. (3) Another of the blogs I follow is by a college student in Alabama. The kid is a current events junkie. She may not write often, but every post of hers is like grapefruit concentrate. The girl packs more intellectual firepower into one paragraph than does CNN in a 24-hour news cycle. (4) There's a U.S. Air Force wife with two kids who is into her third year of living in Japan, away from all things familiar -- home, family, and friends. I take her blog with my morning coffee. Her blog is populated with countless people -- all real and all true. Her blog is a story of reconstruction -- of fashioning a warm and loving home for her husband and two kids 6000 miles from Texas. (5) My favorite blog is authored by a housewife who lives with her husband and two boys on a ranch between me and the Mexican border. She's a Crusader with a Mac battling bravely against Exxon Mobil Corporation. Hers is a David versus Goliath saga in which the Goliath is poisoning the water, the ground and the air on her property and that of her neighbors. Her daily blog is the sling she uses to bring the giant to its knees. When her story is all said and done only a thousand-page novel or the big screen will be able to hold it. It is human drama at its best.

It is the people in the blog that are worth our time and interest. A fellow blogger and friend had to remind me of that this morning. The reader can only take so much about the high temperatures, the dust in the air, nails on the ground, birds in trees, road kill inventories, highway litter, what's for breakfast, lunch or dinner, one's beer preference, the curve of a car's lines, childhood longings, animal abuse, nostalgia, forays into fiction, and self-deprecation. Feature people... she encouraged me.

Yes. Feature people. Incorporate video. I will. Excellent suggestion. So I go look for the guy from yesterday's blog who bought the backhoe with the diesel engine and rotten hydraulics. I will talk to my friend and I will ask if he would not mind doing a little Show-n-Tell for the camera. He won't mind. He's a good-natured fellow who enjoys conversation and storytelling. No luck. Not home. No answer cell. And I am not going to take a gamble and drive out to his ranch eleven miles north of town. And everyone back in town is trying to keep cool indoors. On Sunday the population depletion in Benavides makes the town look more like Chernobyl than it already does. No. I declare defeat at the end of the day. I deserve to be slapped by General Patton. I am not worthy. The best I could do this afternoon was to snap a picture of an interesting conejito by the side of the road.

I will do better pasado mañana, Toddy. Te lo juro.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

El Infierno

A month ago I was crying because the temperature on that afternoon topped 107° F. Today it was almost too hot to find relief in a cold beer. At the sun's peak the blue of the sky was almost washed out by a brilliant, but tortuous white blaze. The porch thermometer at the Ranch marked 108° F. We're been living in an honest-to-goodness inferno this summer. Anyone with a backhoe for hire in this killer heat will soon be in the money. I can just hear it now.
Oyes, compadre.
¿Que le conviene?
¿Todavía jala el backhoe?
Sequro que si.
¿Me puedes escabar un pozo?
¿Como que no? Digame.
Se me murio otra vaca causa de la pinche seca. No se puede quemar y ahora la tengo que enterar.
¿Hágame el favor de escavar me un pozo?
Solamente dígame donde. Pero te va costar.
A friend of mine bought himself an old backhoe that he figures he can get running without too much of a headache. It's got a Case diesel engine and it's in running condition. Only the hydraulics need a little work. He's a pretty handy fellow with tools and engines. I'm certain he'll get it going soon enough. My friend's girl begins college this year and he hopes to pick up a few extra dollars to that end. As cattle begin dying in the brush and fields the ranchers won't be able to burn the carcasses; certainly not in these dry conditions. They'll have to have a pit dug up. So for a fee... have backhoe, will dig.