Monday, May 31, 2010

The Light of Other Days

A hundred feet north of the venerable Benavides School Auditorium stand a couple of concrete lamp posts. The two are planted firmly on either side of a wide and weathered walkway that has ushered generations of school kids, parents, relatives and friends to countless school functions and events. As solid and substantial as the posts are, they are virtually invisible; as lonesome and abandoned on the pieces of ground they claim as a bum sleeping on a park bench. For the few who stop to observe them, they are odd curiosities; ghosts of a former time that once cast a ghostly light in bygone nights.

Their architectural style is unclear. Each begins its rise from the ground anchored to a round concrete stump. Six inches off its cemented foundation it metamorphoses into a faceted base that tapers vertically until it transforms into an octagonal column. It is simple elegance. The lamp fixture that originally adorned the post was lost to the ages. Decades ago some self-styled artisan chiseled away at the top in order to fit it with a ornate cast iron replacement of Art Deco design. Vandals shattered the opaque glass globe that it was crowned with sometime back.

Originally, the lamp posts stood about 175 feet farther down the walkway, standing watch on School Street. Back in the 90s a former school superintendent had them transplanted to their present location, gave them a coat of paint and topped them with new glass orbs. He obviously had an appreciation for latter-day antiquities and the need to salvage them. That gentleman went on to his reward and these days few are of a mind to bathe in the light of other days.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Flash Your Lights for Service

A thousand years ago, or what seems to me like a thousand years ago, I ran up a $35 tab at Marin's Drive Inn, and by school year's end money to settle the account with had not found its way into the fold of my skinny brown wallet. Months before, Marin Alaniz had been kind enough to give me credit at his fast food establishment, but as the weeks passed and the charges mounted, my ability to pay in full at the close of each month diminished. Demand for munchies exceeded my supply of cash.

One afternoon in late May of that year, Marin hopped off his well-worn vinyl upholstered chrome stool from where he lorded over his fast food operation, and walked out to where I sat in my old ranch pickup underneath the narrow shade of the drive inn's corrugated steel awning. I knew what he was going to say as soon as I saw him step into the bright sun and march in my direction. As he approached I noticed he had a wad of charge slips in one hand. This had been coming.

"I can't let you charge nothing no more," he said. There was disappointment in his voice.

My throat tightened so much that I could not force a single word up. I just sat there in the pickup and pursed my lips, looking back at him.

"When are you going to take care of these?" Marin asked, holding up the $35 worth of charges where I could see them more closely. "I can't let you charge no more." He spoke in a soft tone; almost fatherly. I didn't deserve the kindness.

"I'll pay you, Marin," I said, the words finally working their way out. "I promise. I'm working this summer and I'll pay it up with my first check."

Marin nodded in agreement and said, "Okay."

Instinctively, I wanted to reach out to shake his hand, but there was no sign that he was going to offer his. He stepped back from the truck and walked back into the drive inn. I felt bad. It was a large sum that I owed him. Adjusted for inflation, those thirty-five dollars would have five times their buying power today.

That June, I began work in a school-sponsored summer youth program. At first I started hoeing weeds and watering the newly planted white ash saplings around the high school, and by July the more able and industrious among us were assigned to the school cafeteria were the work was in a climate-controlled environment. It was good work, out from under the sun and something that pleased my father to no end. He didn't want to see his boys falling back on physical labor, any more than was necessary to instill a solid work ethic or to learn the value of a dollar. He had sacrificed his back and shoulders for a lifetime so that his children would not have to when they reached adulthood. That summer I had the work ethic thing pretty much programmed into my DNA, but is was the value of a dollar lesson that was eating at me like an ulcer every time I drove past Marin's Drive Inn.

It was more than three months before we were paid for our summer work. The time was late September. When the checks were finally cut they represented a good sum by the standards of the time.

As promised, I settled with Marin in full and it was as if the weight of the world had been lifted of my shoulders. No oft-used cliché rings truer than that one. Mr. Marin Alaniz, thanked me for owning up to my debt, then reached into the red chest cooler he was resting against and pulled up a six-pack of 8-ounce bottles of Coke and handed it to me. The man owed me absolutely nothing, but he wanted to demonstrate his appreciation for settling the overdue debt in a tangible fashion. All I could say to him was, "Thank you, Marin. You don't have to do this. Thank you." I felt guilty taking it, but he was insistent. He shook my hand.

Marin operated his drive inn for many more years until his health failed him and he could no longer attend to it. After his passing in 1986 his sisters tried to make a go of the old place, but the times, the town and the young people had changed and the aura of the local drive inn had faded. Marin's Drive Inn is no more. The gas flame burners of its hamburger griddle were switched off for the last time twenty years ago.

These days I miss the place. It was a great magnet for young people. It its heyday it was the center of the universe after football games and dances. A tinge of sadness touches me when I think of how good Benavides, Texas had it when young people enjoyed a place like Marin's Drive Inn. Hamburgers, fries, nachos, cokes, ice cream, sandwiches, chips and more; all you had to do was flash your lights for service.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

No Respect At All

Rodney Dangerfield succeeded as one of the greats of modern American stand-up. His brand of comedy conveyed humor without purposely resorting to vulgarity. America lost a part of its comic soul when he died in 2004. The oft-repeated catchphrase he used was "I don't get no respect!"
I went to see my doctor... Doctor Vidi-boom-ba. Yeah...I told him once, "Doctor, every morning when I get up and look in the mirror I feel like throwing up.  What's wrong with me?  He said, "I don't know, but your eyesight is perfect." I tell ya. I don't get no respect... no respect at all!
Rodney would have felt right at home in Benavides. We don't get no respect at all. By all rights the railroad can do as it pleases on its property that runs through the pueblito. It gobbles up a fourteen-acre strip running through the middle of town. They were here first long before the township was plotted out, so we had no say in the matter. They beat us to the real estate and the history tells us that Benavides only came into being because of the railroad. Presently, the modern-day incarnation of that rail enterprise is using a good chunk of that acreage to deposit mountains of scrap metal. They've carted it in on gondola cars full of the stuff, and using a steel-grabbing machine, simply pluck it up, out, and set it down on the ground. We're ugly enough as it is and this is just rubbing salt in the wound. If Rodney were with us he would somehow see the humor in it and make us laugh. As it stands, however, it isn't funny and we don't get no respect at all.

Friday, May 28, 2010

There Goes the Neighborhood

Only yesterday theirs was a was perfect existence. Bugs and grasshoppers were in great abundance and for years now the little boys of the pueblito had retreated indoors and these days no longer ventured about armed with BB guns and a practiced eye for feathered targets. Life in the air was good and fat, but then the two-legged monsters with metal teeth affixed to their arms came. They produced a loud and horrid noise as they rose high from the ground they stood on and came cutting, and cutting, and cutting. The sparrows' once placid world had become a deafening nightmare. Cool and shady nooks build high off the ground that had only seconds before been secure and protective places were torn and hacked from the safety of the palm same as the claws of a hawk ripping open the flesh of its prey would. When it was over they flew about in near terror, stealing quick glimpses at what had been their refuge only minutes before.

In another time they could have climbed fast and high to escape their human tormentors that were armed with sling shots or air rifles, but there was no way to flee this assault. The neighborhood had taken on a new face.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

It's A Start

The broken window at the track field's press box was replaced. Isaac would be pleased.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The High and the Mighty



















The dead fronds form a heavy matted skirt underneath the rustling greenery of the Mexican Fan palms. Sixty feet off the ground, it is cool and shady up there; home to wasps, bats, and any two to eight legged critter that bites or stings. Oddly, God's grand plan did not include making Mexican Fan palms a perching favorite of turkey vultures.

Removing the dried fronds and trimming the tall palms to look like giant spindly feather dusters planted upside down in the ground is dangerous. Men experienced in this line of work still risk serious injury trimming these stately palms. Every year some die in the process. Electrocution, falls, suffocation and six-inch long spines at the base of the fronds are reason enough to leave this work to professionals.

With hand-saw or machete in hand, some men still brave the heights in spiked boots to reach the lofty work area. Their fees for labor are the most affordable, but the degree of danger is the highest. A trimming crew, equipped with a cherry-picker, demand the highest fees, but the work is performed quicker and with considerably less risk.

So it is with the stately palms that grace the grounds of the Benavides Secondary School campus. It is remarkable how high and mighty they have become in twenty-five years. Today they received a much-needed trim; although, a pricey one. The three-man crew utilized a self propelled man-lift to perform the work. In relatively short order, it was done.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

All the Time in the World

Benavides is beset by turkey vultures. These scavengers do not measure the intervals of passing days as we mortals do. The black hunters of carrion have the luxury of time; all the time in the world as they sail the warm air currents that brush the rolling plains of South Texas. The only chronology they recognize is the march of the seasons. They are a patient lot that wait. They circle and wait. They roost and wait. They scan the landscape with soulless eyes accustomed to seeking out death and the near dead.

Their domain has been the canopy of blue; afloat above the endless expanse of the brush country, but as of late they have come to squat on the abandoned edifices in the pueblito, orbiting at the fringes of the town in low lazy circles, late in the afternoons. Their growing presence calls to mind the notion that an unseen and ominous entity has summoned them here. Their growing numbers are unsettling. They wait, but no clue as to what it is they expect is offered. We grow impatient for what tomorrow may bring, but they only wait, circle, roost, and wait. They have the ease of all the time in the world.

Monday, May 24, 2010

We Don't Say "Snow Cone"

One hot day back in June of 1989 a crew of burly sun-burnt laborers were digging trenches for a house foundation. Early that morning they had driven in from the Corpus Christi area, 70 miles to the east. My wife and I sat in the shade watching these fellow Latinos work the ground that our new home would occupy in a few month's time. They were taking a short break when a couple of the men noticed that the little drive-inn grocery store across the highway displayed a sign out front that touted assorted flavors of shaved ice served in foam cups. In near-unaccented English, one of the guys leaning on his shovel called out to the rest. "Hey, let's go get a snow cone."

Melba and I looked at each other and thought the same thing. We don't call it a snow cone out here. The colloquial term, raspa, is what we use for snow cone in the circles we run in down here.


The little grocer across the highway closed its door years ago, but raspas have never been unavailable in the pueblito. A local enterprise that is a favorite of raspa lovers is the Cavazos Sno Stand. They've been treating the town to countless flavors for almost twenty years. The sugary syrup is blended and mixed on-site, and the proof of the proprietors' flavorful expertise is in the taste. Periodically, these two entrepreneurs brave the streets of Nuevo Laredo to procure only the finest ingredients for their tastebud triumph of raspaliciousness.

Over the years Cavazos Sno Cone has become as iconic a location in Benavides during the blistering days of summer as has the public swimming pool. It would be a sadder summer, indeed, if one day they chose not to open for business in the months when the kids are off from school.

Wouldn't you know it? Only one hundred feet separate the two locations. That's Providence.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Man, the Wife, and the Boy


The first time the wife and I visited Big Bend National Park was more than thirty summers ago. She was just a girl then, and I, a young man. During that first visit our time at the park was focused more inwardly than outwardly. Our sense of appreciation for this great Texas outdoor wonder was infantile. For years I dreamed of returning there to spend a couple of nights up in the Chisos Mountain Lodge, high in the heart of the Big Bend Country close to the stars. In 2010, much older and wiser incarnations of the young man and woman who came here long ago brought the boy in tow. The long delay was worth it because he had a thoroughly good time, as did we.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Driving to Delicious

The wife and I got dressed real pretty and left the pueblito receding in the rearview mirror. We pulled into a car wash in Alice to beautify the car a little, and then continued on to Portland to pick up friends, the most pleasant of company. Two hours after escaping the caliche-clouded calles of Benavides the four of us arrived in paved and picturesque Rockport, Texas. We came to dine deliciously at Bellino's, a cozy little Italian restaurant that is a trattoria-like treasure of taste.



¿Que comí, yo? Mmmm, food too wonderful for words; Bruschetta Classica, diced herbed tomatoes on toasted garlic bread; Tilapia all'Arancia, filet of tilapia baked with tomatoes and vegetables in a delicate orange sauce with spaghetti. And for a mellow misty head buzz, two generous glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon that my good friend introduced to the table from his personal stock; a 2004 Rubicon Estate Rutherford Rubicon. Dessert was the house's homemade chocolate mousee, followed by a near-perfect tazza di caffé. I do not deserve to live this good, but this evening I made an exception. I am free, I am an American, and sometimes you just have to celebrate it with friends.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Keys to the Kingdom

She locked herself out of the car and in that instant se le cerró el mundo. The minute hand on her watch continued to nibble away at time, but the steady drumbeat of her morning routine came to a full stop with the slam of that door. She froze. The keys to her kingdom were laying on the driver's seat as she peered through cupped hands pressed against the quarter-inch barrier of clear laminated glass. It was total and complete helplessness to suffer separation from those keys. She had become hostage to her carelessness. What was a lady to do at 7:30 in the morning when she lived in this pueblito? Where did one turn to? She called the husband. 

It was a small town and it never took very long for man or beast to leave from point A and arrive at point B. Soon, the husband was standing in front of the car, his fists on his hips and his back to the wife. An animated discussion took place, tensions flowed and ebbed like frothy waves on a warm sandy beach, and then calm prevailed. After a fruitless effort by the husband, the car remained locked and the keys out of reach. What to do? Call the law?

A commonly held notion is that all peace officers carry in their patrol units the mysterious slim jim, the universal automobile door lock popping tool. A phone call was placed to the local constable. No answer, and there was no Pop-A-Lock franchise in Benavides to call for a locksmith to come to the rescue, nor would there ever be. Fire department? Oh, please! A wire hanger? Plastics made that handy invention all but extinct. What next?

The answer was Billy Jack, said the husband. "Lo qué necesitamos es un alambre se soldura para picar el botón. Le hablo a Billy Jack. El debe de tener." She looked on as the husband made the call.

Minutes later Billy Jack, professional welder, pulled up in his bright blue rig. The young man popped open one of his tool boxes and fished out a one-eighth inch diameter 3-foot long brass brazing rod. Even though the driver side door was shut tight, he coaxed apart the weatherstripping just enough to allow the rod to squeeze through. With surgical precision, he maneuvered the tip of the long brass instrument until it found its mark, and then Billy Jack, the professional welder in the bright blue rig, deftly punched the unlock button from three feet away behind the glass barrier. Voilà! Presto! Bingo! Success! The kingdom was hers again; smiles all around, then Billy Jack was gone as quickly as he had come. Start to finish, the car drama did not eat up more than twenty minutes, then all was well in the world once more.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sound Sleep

"We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." This quote, and variations of it, can be attributed to Orwell, Churchill, Kipling and even to a line delivered by Jack Nicholson in the 1992 motion picture A Few Good Men. Who can say with any certainty where the credit belongs? It does not matter. If Mickey Mouse had uttered those same words they would not be any less true. We do sleep soundly because the men and women of the United States military stand ready around the world to kick some ass if need be. Some of those rough men who serve their country in uniform, whether at home or across the seas, come from Benavides, Texas. The Stars and Stripes fly street-side in front of their parents' homes in the pueblito. God bless them all.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Las Uvas

Eight years ago and seven miles west of Benavides, sixteen acres of Blanc du Bois once ripened on the vine, bathed in the nurturing warmth of a South Texas sun. There was a vineyard in Duval County, just off of State Highway 2295, with clusters of juicy marble-sized grapes that grew dark, heavy and plump, but they are gone today. Every square foot of the sixteen acres was plowed under and no evidence of the vineyard remains. The grape-growing operation was the vision of a local attorney. Before the vineyard could mature, he was made an offer for the land the vines were rooted in that he could not refuse. Thereafter, the fruited vines, thriving in the sandy loam, were no more. His vision of a vintage with his personal label affixed to it would not be realized.

That was unfortunate. Nothing would have been more bold in a rural county dotted with deer blinds and pump jacks than to carve a swath of mesquite brush and nopal out of the ranchland and tend acreage that would produce as noble a product as la uva.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pup's Blood

Driving west on School Street the man saw the boy's pup lying lifeless on the hard-packed caliche. It was in the middle of the street. Now dried, a saucer-sized discharge of blood had colored the road where the animal's small gaping mouth had been mashed against the surface by the tire of a passing car or truck; an errant driver, no doubt, at the helm. The first image that flashed in the man's head was of the boy coming home from school and finding the little brown and white dog dead. That was not going to happen.

He parked the pickup on the curb and stepped out of the cab to walk over to the pup. Reaching down to lift it by a rear leg, already stiff, he hoisted it waist high and turned back to the pickup, careful not to let the drops of blood dripping from it's snout fall on his shoes. The dead weight of the small animal surprised him. Heaving the carcass over the side panel of his pickup he let the body fall into the bed. Blood was still trickling from the pup's snout and some large droplets had splattered against the side of the truck. That would have to be washed off before the sun baked it dry on the finish. He resisted the impulse to wipe his hand on his pant leg. It bothered him that he had just had lunch and was having to deal with this. People ought to be more careful on the streets and drive slower. The poor dog need not have died this way. He thought again of the boy and how he had enjoyed chasing after it.

The man settled back behind the wheel and reached over to open the glove box. His wife made it a point to always stock small packettes of moistened hand wipes in the truck. He gave his hands a once-over with the small towelette and then started up the pickup. It was nearing the end of his lunch hour and he wasn't going to take the time to bury the animal. He would tell the boy that he had, but at the moment his intent was to drive to the city limits and toss the dead pup into a tall stand of dense sunflowers that had reached great heights on the highway shoulder. He did.

The boy took the news well later that afternoon on learning of his pet's demise and didn't ask what had become of the body. Instead, he asked that the man load up his little bike and drive him over to the smooth blacktop street by the high school so he could ride. It was one of the few remaining stretches of pavement still left in the pueblito. It was hard to ride with the wheels rolling over caliche, was what the boy said.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Broken Window

In stark contrast to the shysters in the U.S. Congress, Isaac Gonzalez, Jr. operated as a fiscal conservative when he served as Superintendent of Schools for the Benavides ISD. He warded the taxpayers' money frugally. That was a long time ago. He was in no way a big spender and unlike our "public servants" in Washington who believe money grows on trees, Isaac Gonzalez, Jr. knew where every budgeted penny came from and where it went.

Almost twenty-five years ago the high school's track and field complex was rededicated and named for him; an honor he received after his passing. A longtime high school athletics coach, teacher and administrator, it was not surprising that the school district's powers-that-be honored this local boy who grew up, got educated, and made good by serving generations of his hometown's youths. A modest crowd was in attendance that afternoon at the outdoor ceremony when the track facility was christened with his name. Raymundo Ramos, a former colleague and coach who had worked for years with Isaac Gonzalez, Jr., acted as the emcee. Naturally, he spoke well of the man. Coach Ramos, a gifted speaker throughout his career in education and still so to this day, alluded in his remarks to the fact that Isaac Gonzalez, Jr. was never blessed with a son, however, he and his wife did have a daughter; a wonderful girl to know.

"At this time I would like to ask all the men here who were coached by Isaac Gonzalez, Jr. to please stand," Ramos called out to the crowd in his clear and distinctive baritone. "Please. If he was your coach at any time during your high school years, please stand," Ramos repeated.

One by one, and then in pairs or trios, men rose from their places to stand at Coach Ramos' request. Some of the former athletes' heads were topped with splendid white manes. There was much salt and pepper in others. Still, some sported slick domes that shined under the bright sun. A sizable group soon took shape. The attendees in the viewing stand grew silent --the stillness broken only by the repeated coo cooooo coo of a lone dove calling from somewhere in the expanse of mesquite brush beyond the fence of the manicured grounds of the oval track.

With a tone of proud conviction, Coach Ramos continued. "You," he said. "All of you who are standing here today are his sons. You are his sons because he coached all of you with the same love that a father has for a son." His voice boomed.

That afternoon was one of Benavides' prouder moments. It spoke of school and community pride, personal achievement and recognition of those who had come before us. What was odd is that those people in-the-know would have told you that had Isaac Gonzalez, Jr. had his way, he probably would have resisted approving of the funds necessary to build the track and field facility that his memory had just been honored with. He may have just looked on it as a costly extravagance. The contradiction stands as one of life's ironies.

Today the field has fallen into a state of disrepair. It is a sad sight to those who can recall the afternoon that Coach Ramos spoke those moving words. The press box window has been broken so long that no one can remember how many months it's been that way --its interior exposed to the elements and flying critters. The track surface is in horrid condition. It is all very sad. Something much more substantial than a press box window is broken in the pueblito and in the schools. It is something deeper that speaks of a chronic apathy and neglect that is eroding the legacy of the Benavides Eagles. Isaac would be disappointed.

1952 - Benavides High School Track
Standing: Coach Isaac Gonzalez, Jr., Maximo Vera, Benito Sendejar, Enrique Ramirez, Mario Garza, Flavio Canales, Oscar Utley, Raymundo Ramos
Kneeling: Ramon Hinojosa, Oscar Saenz, Fidel Saenz, Macario Garza, Jesus Cisneros

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chinese Rocks

All my life I believed that only God Himself was at the helm of the forces that created rocks. I was wrong. Apparently, the Chinese have discovered His secret and managed to make a profit from it. They have learned to create wealth where we in South Texas never dreamed of looking. Economic salvation for the dying pueblito has been laying all around us for years and we didn't even know it. Rocks, it was smooth fist-sized rocks, and the red Chinese commies had the marketing genius to figure out how to sell rocks to the Americans. Benavides was caught asleep at the wheel. Shame on us.

Stepping into Mom's living room this afternoon my eye caught sight of three big ol' rocks on a table. They were decorative in nature. White and smooth, each had been crudely etched with designs depicting a bird, a dragonfly and what I took to be a fat bee. One rock had the word HOPE carved on the surface; the other two, PEACE and JOY. They were curious pieces that my mother had purchased on a trip to the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino on the outskirts of Eagle Pass, Texas. She thought they were pretty. Initially she picked up two, then returned to the counter and settled on a third.

"Mother," I said, "You went and bought rocks from China. I have lived too long, and seen too much."

"Pos, me gustaron," was her reply. "Que esperas que hiciera."

"My God, Maria," I said, "You paid three dollars for a rock!"

Some entrepreneurial wiseguy in far-off China proposed to his bosses that they could market ordinary river rocks for sale to the Americans if the company simply conscripted some peasants to carve some niceties on them. On our side of the Pacific we would have scoffed at the idea, but the crafty Chinese saw a market. Bingo! Score one for the Red Commie Chinese, and a zero for the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. How did we miss this one?

For miles around Benavides, Texas there are dry creek beds winding endlessly through the brush with perfectly suitable fist-sized rocks that are carve-worthy and ripe for the picking. We missed the boat on this one. The rock-loving consumer market could have been ours, but we lacked the initiative to act. What next? Are the Chinese now going to sell us cow turds?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

They Called Him "Amigo"

He was born Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, but the movie-going public came to know him as Gilbert Roland. He died on this date sixteen years ago and the world has been a sadder and poorer place since.

Friday, May 14, 2010

From the Prom to Walmart

In nine short years my ex-student went from sashaying on the prom dance floor to pushing a kid-laden cart through the aisles of a Walmart. The brand of happiness she enjoys these days is of a different nature than that of the school girl she once was. The song she carries in her heart is the soft coo of a lullaby and her smile radiates the glow of young motherhood.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

He's Got It Right


Rene Henry Gracida, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas is a hard hitter. Too bad he didn't choose Duval County for his small ranching operation. He would have made a good neighbor.

Visit his blog:
ABYSSUS ABYSSUM INVOCAT / DEEP CALLS TO DEEP

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Some Bad, Some Not So Bad

We heard some bad news today. My wife and I depend solely on our cell phones for tele-communication. Apparently, not having a telephone land line is a harbinger of risky behavior, healthwise. So says Stephen Blumberg, a senior scientist with the CDC National Center for Health. At lunch today I happened to catch his sound-bite on the radio. Referring to people like me, who have no land line at home, he had this to say.
"Well, the wireless-only population in general... have different health characteristics than others. We know they're more likely to be uninsured. For example, they're more likely to binge drink and to smoke. On the other hand they're also more likely to exercise more often."
It seems now that my wife and I have to drop our insurances, take up smoking and drink like sailors if we are to more closely align ourselves with Blumberg's scientific notion of non-land liners. We already exercise. He must have sent his team to Benavides to compile notes for his research.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

There Was Something About This Town

A fellow I've only exchanged emails with, but have never met, calls Benavides, Texas home. What is peculiar is that he has never lived here, but his personal hero, his dad, did. That reason alone compels him to call this pueblito home. Because of his father's work his adolescent years were somewhat nomadic. What roots he could sink into intermittent "hometowns" were shallow, but his dad's stories of growing up in Benavides were this fellow's claim to roots here. His father loved this town when it enjoyed better days. This guy enjoys collecting old photos of Benavides that depict it when it had a strong pulse. I passed along a couple dozen pictures to him via email. When he saw them he said he became teary-eyed. "There was just something about Benavides," he said, recounting his few boyhood visits here. Those days of long ago will be pearls to treasure for the rest of his life.

In the course of our conversation he spoke of his father's passing and how he did not have an opportunity to show him all the old haunts of his youth in Benavides. One was the narrow two-lane road that led east out of town to Kingsville, two counties away. What his ol' man did out there he did not say. A good stretch of that road wasn't even paved back in the 50s and early 60s. For many young Benavides Eagles just out of high school that road represented a path to better their education and pursue their vision of the American Dream. So what was in Kingsville? It was the Texas College of Arts & Industries and its promise of limitless opportunity through education. College was a hard-earned ticket out of a town they would look back fondly on in their more seasoned years.

The small college later became Texas A&I University and later still, Texas A&M University at Kingsville. The numbers of young people from this town that pursued a college education since the 1950s is phenomenal. There used to be a certain something about this town, its schools and its people. It was an intangible quality that, as of late, has begun to shrivel on the vine, but for Eagles who dream a bigger dream, the road is still there, and it still delivers on its promise.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Road Closed

The Kansas City Southern bought up the short lengths of Depot and Brazil Streets that cut across their rails here in the pueblito. In short order their crews began rolling up the old blacktop like worn carpet. Just like that, the roads are now closed. Their link to the neighborhoods north of the tracks is history.

Railroading is a for-profit venture. It is serious business. They come, they see, they act. Time is money. In the meanwhile, the miles of crusty caliche streets in Benavides continue to be graded and watered down week after week after week with no progress in sight. Over six dusty and occasionally muddy months have dragged by since the first pot-holed street was stripped naked. Is this any way to run a business? As conditions worsen, it cannot be determined with any certainty what "business" the city oversees. The puebliteros* grow weary of the inconvenience. Townsfolk need their roads paved black, smooth and open. They probably wish the railroad ran the city. At least the Kansas City Southern has a record of service. You can depend on the trains rolling through town eight times a day. As things stand, time here has no dollar value as it does in the business world.

*the term puebliteros was coined by wordsmith Toddy Burns, RanchoLosMalulos.com

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Big Bend Country

The weekend's mission is accomplished. The boy has now seen eagles, hiked pine forested mountains, tossed rocks across the Rio Grande, and walked barefoot on some of the harshest country in Texas. He's only seven and has a long way to go before he calls himself a man. He'll get there. The boy isn't blood kin, but in the time left to me, by God's good graces I will work to stay healthy and strong to show him what lies beyond the horizon. He should grow to realize that an awesome world of sights, sounds, and people exists outside this dust-choked pueblito. We have our work cut out for us. There is no surplus of time.

Soon, a day will come when he will no longer find me entertaining, nor will I will be able to hoist him high on my shoulders (five-foot six is "high" for a seven-year-old). It is to be expected of growing boys that they distance themselves from us "old people." Time stands still for no mortal. Our buddy years are short in number and there are many things to see and experience before the moment comes that he looks at me and sees only an old man who loves him dearly, but not one he wishes to invest too much time with. In the meanwhile, there are a good number of weekends to come. We'll do the Grand Canyon this summer, and the boy can add flying to his list of small adventures.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

En Un Poso

What pass for hills in this piece of the South Texas brush country corrals tiny Benavides in a shallow bowl; carved long ago into the landscape by the tortoise-like tick of the geological clock. A mile from the pueblito Highway 339 approaches from the south, sloping down and leveling off just as the occasional car or truck meets up with the green city limits sign. At that point 339 surrenders its state designation to become Humble Street, a name that recalls more prosperous times for the community. In the middle of the last century the Humble Oil Corporation pumped oil out of the ground and prosperity into the city. Today, the skateboarders pushing along its shoulder probably don't know the name of the street, much less the origin of its name.

Just as 339 glides gently into Benavides, the same could be said about the approaches from the north, east, and west. The terminus of these seven blacktop ribbons congregate in the center of this shallow bowl. In the TV aerial days that preceded satellite and cable, viewers struggled to hoist antennas high enough above their trees and roof lines to catch a snow-free signal from the broadcast stations in Corpus Christi, 75 miles to the east. Program reception was not always the best. "Es que estamos en un poso," is what they used to say.

From the vantage point of that tame hill south of town the human eye can scan from left to right, taking in the low sky line etched across a horizon matted with mesquite and prickly pear. It reads like the telling lines of your right palm in the hands of a good reader, if there were such a human gift. The concentration of Mexican Fan palms staked tall around the high school and field lights of the football gridiron and baseball diamond, stand testament to the youthful vitality that still exists in the dying community. In the center of the panorama is the water tower, emblazoned with faded block lettering, mutely proclaiming the school mascot, EAGLES. Jutting above the low treeline are the Catholic churches two sand-colored towers, one houses its bells and electronic chimes, and the other is capped with a small dome topped with a cross. As the eye moves right, a one-hundred-and-fifty foot radio tower shoots into the sky. It belongs to one of the pueblito's biggest employers, Arrow Drilling. It cannot be seen, but across the street from Arrow is N.S.C.L, Inc., a home health provider that, paired with Arrow, acts as one of the saving graces of Benavides. By the goodness of God they have a healthy payroll, lifeblood to the community. Lastly, the corrugated roofs of the county precinct shops lay scattered to the side on the road leading out of town.

If one wanted to, they could park on that hill, as I did many times in my youth with high school friends to drink beer, rattle off stories of love and its troubles, to recall school fights, friends who moved away, music, drunken escapades, cars, trucks, and girls. That was long ago. I haven't parked on that hill since before I married, and that was over thirty-five years ago.

If I could have a dollar for every time I plied that ribbon of highway north and south on that hill I could buy Bill Gates and have him polish my shoes and buff them bright with his tongue. Better yet, I would take the cash and pave these damn streets. If the water doesn't kill us, then sucking in this caliche-laden air will.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Antonio Zengara Comes to Town

Louie, an ex-student from my public school teaching days, is all grown up now -- a man of style and refined taste these days. Thursday afternoon I could not help notice his footwear. It was absolutely magnificent. He was treating his feet to Antonio Zengara Italian leather boots. Slip a pair of these beauties on me and people would think the circus had come to town. On Louie, they make an impressive fashion statement. I never saw more beautiful cowhide. The cattle around here couldn't bear to look in the mirror all day.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Natural Light (not the beer)

John Saladino is an interior designer to the rich and famous. I never heard the name before today and I do not know him from Adam, but we share a common belief when he says "...no space without natural light is worthy of human occupation." Truer words were never spoken.

For the last five months I've worked under the cold white light of eight fluorescent lamps in a windowless office, but words of gratitude never stray far from my lips. After all, this is the pueblito of Benavides, and it is thanks to Providence that I have been fortunate to enjoy rewarding employment here; post my retirement from teaching.

Twenty feet from my desk stands an exterior 15-paned door that allows natural light and people into our building. If I scoot my chair way over to the left I can just make out the sky and the green earth. The narrow view is a small comfort during my Monday through Friday stay in the bunker. John Saladino did not design the modular building I work in, but I wish he had. He would understand the need for soft and warm light of the kind that filters down through the canopy of old mesquites.

Soon, even the semblance of that picture will be lost to me. For reasons of security, the 15-paned door will be replaced by a solid one that does not have so much as a peep hole. Woe is me.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

We're Having A Meeting

Pulling through the old cattle guard he heard the familiar chorus of rattling metallic clanks produced by his pickup's tires as they rolled over the pipes. A heavy pickup made the two-inch pipes play a low rumbling tune, but with lighter vehicles they produced a clanking that was about an octave higher. This strum of the cattle guard could be heard all the way to the ranch house. It signaled the approach or departure of cars, pick-ups, tractors or trucks. Mother wished the rattle could instead signal the approach of wetbacks, but the illegals worked their way up to the house on foot through the pasture out back. All they rattled were her nerves.

Leaving the dirt road he turned left on the narrow highway north to town, accelerating to a leisurely fifty miles-per-hour. There was no hurry. To the west the sun had just dropped below the distant line of mesquite brush and the sky was taking on a pretty pinkish hue against a faded violet-blue. Great golden shafts of light accented the sky. It reminded him of New Mexico, but this was South Texas and on occasion it could best any state's sunset. For late March it was unusually cool and dry, so he rolled the window down, resting his arm through the frame. The rush of air in the cab felt good. He reached for the cell phone to call his wife. She answered after one ring.

"Babe, where're you at?" he asked, knowing that she was probably still at school. There was no end to her work at school. The final year he had taught in the classroom he had managed to break from the habit of staying late. It had been the winter of his teaching career and he just didn't feel as driven as he had in years past. As the end of his teaching days had drawn nearer he surmised that he was at a point in life where he needed to pace himself and dole out his resources in measured scoops. The bright and shining rewards of teaching had lost their luster in the last couple of years before his retirement.

"I'm just about to leave," she said. "Where are you?"

"Just pulling out of the ranch. I'll see you at home," he said. In ten minutes time he and the wife would be exchanging a hug and kiss. The ranch wasn't but six miles south of town.

"Don't forget the paper," she reminded him. The local rag never had five cents worth of news, but he'd stop and pick it up anyway.

"Oh! I have a meeting tonight," he remembered.

"But it's Wednesday."

"I know, but Simon moved it up a day 'cause a couple of the guys can't make it tomorrow."

The "meetings" had been a bi-monthly association for years. It was an informal guys-only pow-wow of mainly school employees, but admission was open to like-minded males who wished to partake of the wisdom and wit doled out over beer and barbecue. They joked that their purpose was to solve the ills of the school, the community, and the world. Lately, the "workload" had increased to a point that the meetings were being held weekly.

He closed his phone. The lights of an approaching car reminded him to switch on his headlights. How he wished it was May already. The longer days would be welcome.

Monday, May 3, 2010

120/80

Keep clear of cigarettes. Shed the extra baggage around your middle. Start walking a lot, regularly. Say good-bye to taquitos and hello to veggies. Anything that spices up your life along the lines of salt, alcohol, caffeine, etc.; exercise moderation. Lastly, relax and play with kittens. 120/80 will be yours.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Fine Vintage

The subject of the pueblito's unpaved streets came up in conversation with a friend who happens to enjoy good wines and pull teeth for a living. Tons of blacktop aggregate have been piled in large heaps on one of the only paved streets left in Benavides, I tell him. For months they've sat there. At first it was an encouraging sight, but it soon became apparent that the black heaps had been dumped there only for show. The work of tearing up the old pot-holed streets began back on October 5 of last year and we have yet to coast on a freshly-paved street.

"Maybe the piles of blacktop have to be aged like wine," my friend joked. "They've got to sit there, undisturbed, to let them develop their full potential. The longer they're aged the more of the earth's essence and flavor will be drawn into them. All of you there need to be patient. A good paved surface, like a good wine, will take time. That blacktop has to be aged."

His analogy was clever, but there is nothing amusing about having to drive on these streets while bouncing up and down like Rosie O'Donnell's limp boobs when she tries to jog. God only knows how much punishment the undercarriage of our cars and trucks are sustaining. It cannot be good.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Camino Largo

There are advantages to living far removed from the urban centers of commerce and entertainment, until it's time to hit the road and get back home. The pueblito is about as distant as you can get from San Antonio, Corpus Christi, McAllen and Laredo without leaving South Texas. We be way out in the sticks, dat fo sho.

It is a long road home at night, and if you're toting passengers they had better have conversation aplenty, otherwise the miles will seem as long and as lonely as Rosie O'Donnell's stretch marks.

Hours before, the wife and I dined Italian with good friends. Good Italian is an hour-and-a-half away, but where else could we get our forks into pan seared lemon tilapia with Parmesan pasta sprinkled with crab meat; all this smothered in a marsala wine sauce? You can't dig into a dish like that in any greasy eatery in the pueblito, so the long road to and from this place is the price extracted from food lovers for the remote existence they chose for themselves in the brush country. Es un camino largo.