Thursday, March 31, 2011

Absolutely Nuts

They come in pairs. Before they are washed, peeled, sliced, soaked in a milky rich eggy bath, dusted with flour, pepper sprinkled, deep-fried, then served hot in a toasty tortilla, they have to be liberated from between a bull calf's hind legs. It takes a sharp knife worked by a sure hand. This is not work for the squeamish.

Below the Rio Bravo they are called los huevos del toro, but north of that tumultuous border line, they are more commonly refered to as mountain oysters, Texas calf fries, or prairie oysters. They are a tasty delicacy if you don't think about it too much. It's absolutely nuts.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bank Shot

An instant before the pretty bank teller behind the counter pressed the button to unlock the exit door, I gave the handle a hard push. The effort went nowhere, but the momentum I had built up did, bringing me within a quarter-inch of bumping my head on the plate glass. A bank robber had proved successful holding up the place in the summer of 2007, so security at the little bank had been kicked up a notch, and ever since, customers had been buzzed in and out of the tiny building. Security cameras stared down from every corner now. It remains uncertain how the new security measures would have thwarted the bank robber. He used a handgun that one time, and to date, he remains unidentified, free and probably in good spirits.

Waiting for the lock to click free and for my embarrassment to fade, I looked out across the railroad tracks to the long-abandoned Merchants Exchange Bank. A tenth of a mile from my vantage point, the grand relic stood framed by the stenciled letters on the glass door in front of me. I thought it curious that my feet were planted on the floor of this little bank today, but fifty-plus years ago, these same feet, more tender and small, had taken little steps across the black and white checkerboard pattern on the shiny floor of the old bank's lobby.  To a little boy the place had seemed cavernous. Back then, cash and commerce had been its lifeblood and it had enjoyed good years of solvency. Today, the only deposits in the old bank were those left by the pigeons. The thought was only a flash, but it was enough to feel a tinge of sadness to realize how the old bank now stood like a tombstone of sorts over the dead and decaying pueblito.

After the all death, destruction, and defeat suffered by the Confederate States of America, the refrain 'the South shall rise again' could be heard continually by Dixie's faithful for decades following Lee's surrender at Appomattox. It did. The South did rise again, and it did come to know growth and prosperity once more, but not in any incarnation that veteran Johnny Rebs would have imagined. Perhaps, Benavides too, will rise again in a new and different mold. These feet may yet walk there before they grow stiff, cold and bloodless.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Narrow Bipinnately Compound Leaves

"As a tree it seems to me as graceful and lovely as any tree in the world.  When, in the spring, trees and bushes put on their delicately green, transparent leaves and the mild sun shines upon them, they are more beautiful than any peach orchard…  The greens seems to float through the young sunlight into the sky…"
J. Frank Dobie,
“The Mesquite,” Arizona Highways, November, 1941

The mesquite's small frothy-looking clusters are called catkins. Each bunch is made up of tiny pale green or yellowish flowers that lure swarms of pollinating insects. They're called candelillas in Spanish.

“It (the mesquite) comes as near being characteristic of the whole Southwest, including much of Mexico, as any species of plant life known to the region,” said Dobie. “I ask for no better monument over my grave than a good mesquite tree.”

Monday, March 28, 2011


The boy won a gold fish at a carnival game and soon discovered he had no place to plop it into. When a kid wins something for nothing, the prize is supposed to be free. Not so, and my little friend would soon learn that nothing is ever really free.

After the fun of the rides and the food at the carnival, a late night trip to Walmart was in order. The fish needed to be outfitted with survival gear. That was when the cost of "free" began to add up. The little gold fish required a small tank. The boy wanted a nice one, and nice ones come with an aquarium light hood and a 15-watt incandescent bulb. The extension cord to reach the electrical outlet in the far corner of his room is extra. It did not come in the box. Fish get hungry and are more content if their water world is kept sparkling clean. Next to the various tanks on display there were fish foods and water care products waiting to drop into the shopping cart.

"Can I buy a toy?" the boy asked his mother. The toy aisle with the new Halo 3 action figures was coincidentally under the same roof as the fish supplies.

"No. Not this time," she answered. Her tone was soft. "We're buying toys for your free fish right now."

"My fish is going to need a friend," the boy said. "He's going to be lonely in his aquarium. Can we buy him a friend."

"We'll get him two." Mother was feeling generous tonight, but $40 poorer.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Card Reader

   "That man that reads the cards is here," she said. The excitement in Lupita's voice gave it a little girl's lilt. "They just told me. He's here in town. I just heard."
   "¿Las barajas?" asked Maricela. "He reads barajas?"
"Yes, girlfriend," she answered. "He's very good. They say that... that he's very good. My sister went to him one time and he told her everything. How could he know? But he did. He told her all about everything."
   "Like what? What did he say" What did he tell her?" asked another. It was Evita, the one who hardly ever spoke at all. Her eyes grew wide.
   "Like about her husband and of the time she got sick and everything. How could he know? And he didn't have to use the cards, girlfriend. He just lookteded at her eyes. He read her eyes. He told her everything," she said.
   "Where? Where is he?" she asked. "Let's go Lupita. You'll go with me, right?. Okay? Let's go. We'll go at lunch."
   "Yes, girlfriend. I'll go with you."
   "But what if he tells me something I don't want to know? What if it's bad? I don't know, now," said Maricela.
   "What! Don't be like that. I know about this man. He's very good. He's helped a lot of people. He's good. He has a good face," Lupita assured her. "He only charges what you can pay him. Whatever you want to give him. That's all."
   "A good face? Yes, that's good. Right?" asked Maricela.
   "He can help, girlfriend," said Lupita. "My sister went to him and he helped her a lot. He did. She has her baby now. He can help you, girlfriend. Yes? You want your baby, right?"
   "Okay. Go with me at lunch," answered Maricela. She grew quiet after that and left the room.
   "Baby? Maricela has a baby?" Evita looked to Lupita.
   "No! She wants a baby. She has had problems with that. She wants a baby, but she can't," said Lupita. "That's why she has to go see the man to read the cards. He can help her with this."
   "How? Is he like a doctor?" Evita asked. "Is that how he can help?"
   "No! Don't you see? He will read her the cards. The cards can tell what is wrong," said Lupita. "The cards will help make things right again."
   "How? I don't understand," she asked. "Make what right?"
   "Don't you know nothing, girl?"
   "Maricela has been trying to have a baby," explained Lupita. "It's never happened for her. She wants to give her husband babies so bad. She feels so bad inside because she thinks she cannot have children and never will. Maricela feels so bad and I think she has lost hope in her life. She has been to doctors and they tell her that she is perfect inside. That nothing is wrong. That her ovaries and her uterus are fine. They tell her they are healthy. Nothing is wrong with her. I say the doctors must be wrong. It is something else. Something else is wrong! The cards will explain. I have seen it happen before with others."
There is a very real danger in pursing answers to life's questions through the occult. It works to build a wall of resistance between your spirit and the Word of God. The reality of the occult world is undeniable, but God demands that we look solely to him for guidance and life's answers.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Light Workout

At times, the geography of the mesquite brush makes it impractical to employ a chain saw or an excavator. You have to low-tech it and get in there with a three-and-a-half-pound single bit axe. My brother and I called it a light work out today. We thought we could fool ourselves into believing that clearing a path through the brush was a simple undertaking and not the life-threatening ordeal that it actually was for two males past their prime. He's 65. I'm 58. I cannot speak for him, but I lead a sedentary life. In the course of a regular day, the most I physically tax my body is a fast-paced 30-minute walk after work. Swinging an axe in humid 90-degree air is pushing the envelope for this guy.

Dad's words of caution always sound in my head when I look at the business end of a well-sharpened axe. "Tenga cuidado, mijo. No te vayas a mochar un dedo, por que esos no cresen para atrás." That was his way of saying that when the axe head completes its downward arc and makes contact with the wood or your foot, the sharpened edge will strike with 10,000 pounds of pressure. If you make a mistake with your first swing on the mesquite, you can always try again, but you cannot afford to be careless because there is no way you can stick your toes back on your foot. That's important. Big brother is outfitted with steel toe  boots. I'm operating out here in my well-worn athletic shoes from Walmart. The ol' man would certainly look down on that piece of judgment.

The brush clearing served as an excellent workout. We proceeded cautiously, keeping an eye out for critters that sting or bite. Our pace was steady, we hydrated often and enjoyed good conversation. These bodies that are past the half-century mark still serve us well. We felt like powerful men today; using our torsos, gluts and legs to deliver steady and efficient blows with our axes. Dad taught us well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Puppy Love

Three pups came calling today.  A dozen steps from our office door, a patch of St. Augustine became their playground. All females, they yipped, yapped, and rolled under a warm South Texas sun. For the better part of the workday, their sight and sounds acted as an agent to lower our blood pressures.  They liked me and I liked them.

If they didn't have the need to eat, defecate and chase cars, one might have been tossed in the back of the pickup at quitting time and taken home.

That did not happen. In the long run, I would rather refill the blood pressure medication and not concern myself with what I may step in when I fetch the morning paper.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Taking Hold of the Wind

Invisible rivulets of air piercing past the narrows between the flesh of the fingers at eighty miles an hour delivers a dynamite sensation. It is instant. It takes seed in the cerebral cortex in a microsecond, and it does it without the aid of an external chemical delivery system. It is a natural rush supported by the internal combustion engine, a heavy foot, and fifty cents worth of 87 octane gasoline.

The hit is best experienced at illegal highway speeds on roads leading away from Benavides, Texas. This low-grade nirvana induces feelings of escape, deliverance, release, independence, liberation, et al. In the American male, holding the reins to 360 horses on the open road,  the gut feeling is one of rugged individualism. It is a trip, but one best taken in daylight, on a long ribbon of highway in the wide open spaces under the big South Texas sky. To launch into it at night is a lame effort, with the unwelcome specter of suicide riding shotgun.

State Highway 359 works best in this mix. Exit the pueblito from the east, lean into the slow lazy curve just beyond the city limits that points you toward San Diego, and then stomp it. Roll down your window and push your free hand into the slipstream. It is as if you are taking hold of the wind. You begin to rise with the landscape. Two and a half miles later, you find yourself 100 feet higher than the curve you left behind. This is a kid's game played at any age.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What's in a Name?

Proverbs 22:1 - A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold. KJV
Benavides, Texas and Raymundo Ramos came of age in the crest of the 20th century, the post World War II years. The two drew sustenance and strength from a reservoir of resources that few imagined would one day play out.  Collateral wealth from the oil fields worked to shape Benavides into an exceptional and amiable community. Its citizens took pride in that, and rightfully so. The family culture that groomed Raymundo Ramos into a fine young man, promoted a strong work ethic, bolstered by the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church. Faith, morality and self-reliance were infused into the bloodstream of his generation.

Today, the town is a sad scrap of its former self, but not Raymundo Ramos. The mantle of goodness, civility and polish that adorned Benavides, Texas generations ago is personified today in this fine gentleman, one of its favorite sons. His good name and reputation have acted as a moral compass, pointing the countless lives he touched in his long teaching and coaching career, to true north.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


These days, the shallow moisture sponged into the sandy loam of South Texas after the last rains is being drawn into the air and scattered by the seasonal winds. First, the dampness is blown away, stealing the supple newness of the early spring, and then the powder-fine sands follow, laying a dull coat on the flushes of green. When this occurs, the wind's sweeping action forces the ground to give up buried vestiges of an earlier time. One such artifact lay unearthed this morning a couple of dozen steps from my front door, its faded colors bringing to light images of near-forgotten Texas lore. It was a crushed and flattened aluminum can of XXX Pearl Fine Lager Beer, one of the foulest brews ever produced for the consuming public. The best estimation dates the can back to 1972. 

This was trash day and the first impulse was to toss it into the stiff plastic bin before wheeling it out to the street, but hesitation took hold and the mashed can was set aside for closer examination at a later time. The rhyme and rhythm of the workday's morning routine  took president over this dated curiosity. The can would wait. 

The can's survival serves to remind the present that the beer culture has been prevalent in South Texas for generations. The brand and brewery matter not. A press of beer trucks races from San Antonio to Brownsville to Laredo to Corpus Christi and points in between in a never-ending delivery cycle. The insatiable lust for beer around here is only equal to the area's appetite for marijuana and cocaine. Dulling the senses to the realities of life is big business.

Wind and erosion coax arrowheads and charred pottery to tell us about the peoples who walked these lands a millennia ago. What will our artifacts say about us? Beer cans pounded flat and long buried will have a sad tale to tell.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Un Miedo Terrible

Benito Juárez terrified me to tears when I was four years old. One evening, Dad was cruising the family down Avenida Vicente Guerrero in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Two miles south of what was then the only vehicular bridge linking los dos Laredos, he reduced speed as we neared a traffic circle. Its focal point was a combination earthen-concrete platform serving as a base for a 30-foot column topped by the most frightening figure I had ever seen in my young life. It was a very menacing Benito Juárez and he was looking right at me.

I dropped to the floorboard, hiding from the stone monster. The family thought it all very amusing. To my horror, they began to exit the safety of the car. Were they crazy? It was dark out there. My mother urged me to come along with them and enjoy a closer look at the towering monument. Slowly, I raised my little body from off the floor behind the front seat and took one quick peek through the passenger door window. I let go with a meek child's wail and began crying. I just wanted out of there. I wanted everyone back in the car now and I wanted us to drive away from that horrible place as quickly as possible. Take me home! How long we parked there, I cannot recall, but I stayed down on the floorboard the whole time, curled in a little ball.

Four or five years later, a bit older and a tad more sophisticated, Benito and I again came face to face. The family returned to that traffic circle and parked in the same spot once more. My older siblings were teasing me, chuckling about the torment I had suffered that night. When Dad switched the engine off, I was quick to exit and make my way directly to the monument's base to confront my former vexation. I recalled feeling silly over my behavior on our first encounter.

Señor Juárez and I get along splendidly these days. Happy birthday, Benito.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


The steel-plated behemoth that he walks up to is a Type-1 Chi-He tank, a vintage Imperial Japanese Army killing machine of World War II, completely authentic, and the boy knows it. He had visited the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas back in December of 2008, but its Pacific Combat Zone outdoor complex did not exist then. The boy is pleased and impressed with the new addition. The little plastic models he gets from Walmart are fine to pass the time with, but the real things, the ones whose cold pitted steel he can pat with his small hand, have greater significance. It is their authenticity that he values. The excitement that his eight-year-old mind cannot verbalize, his eyes speak loudly for him.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hill Country Lemmings

The caravan of cars, pickups and SUVs had been at a standstill for a long time. Mommas were having to lead their toddler boys from their idle vehicles out to the bushes off the highway shoulder so the little ones could take a tinkle. The little pricks enjoyed no privacy. A stretch of highway near the entrance to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area on Farm to Market Road 965 had become a narrow mile-long parking lot, so more than a few prying eyes watched as the kids watered the weeds. Traffic waited patiently to inch forward. All the while, the northbound traffic continued to appear on the crest of the hill to the south. They, too, would have to come to a stop at the end of the growing line of Hill Country lemmings.

Tiny figures could be seen making their way to the top of the granite dome. From where we were sat, just over a mile away, we stewed in envy. Yet, few in the long line were willing to break the ranks and turn back to Fredericksburg. None had any notion what lay ahead. There was no hint how long it would be before we, too, would tramp our way to the top of the dome. We were as clueless as lemmings.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Feel for Wood

An image of a small dark-skinned figure with painted skin and feathers on his head came to mind when I saw the sign above the door that read "Specializing in Mexican and European Primitives." Walking past the threshold into the antique store what I saw instead were old men tagging behind their silver-hared wives, but no primitives adorned in paint or feathers. The women would take an article in hand, raising to their noses for closer inspection. Others followed the contours of a weathered table or rocking chair, tracing them with a finger and an admiring eye. The mens focus was fixed on the numbers penciled on the small tags attached to each piece. It was amusing to watch them raise an eyebrow as they moved a wrinkled hand protectively near their wallets.

My friend has flecks of gray on his full head of hair, but unlike the other men there, he was less concerned with what might catch his wife's fancy or the dollar amounts scribbled on the little white tags. He was looking for the right piece. My friend has a feel for wood, and so the antique would have an element of it. He did not know what the piece was, but he would recognize it when he saw it.

Before long he reached for something and brought it up, holding it in his hands. "What do you think?" he asked.

Initially, I did not know what it was. I was surrounded by the kinds of household items we had emptied my grandmother's house of more than forty years ago, and tossed out as junk. Yet, here it was again, stacked high and for sale with inflated prices.

"It's an old paper dispenser," my friend says.

Yes, it was, I agreed. Before I could point out to him that it would not hold any sized rolled paper on the market today, he tells me that he is going to "fix it" in his workshop back home. The conviction in his voice gave no reason to doubt that he would.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What For Green?

Should anyone tease me today for not wearing green, I will say to them...
"The day I see merry throngs of the Irish dancing to "Viva Jalisco" down 5th Avenue in Manhattan on Cinco de Mayo, then I will be happy to adorn myself as green as a pea."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

80 Patties

The hamburger patties he was hand-patting were of certified Angus beef. Friends often asked how his hamburgers tasted extra good on the grill. He had a few tricks. To make good burgers, he started with high fat meat. He had never been remotely tempted to buy leaner meat. It cost more and had less fat. He was not about to start making that mistake. The problem with the lean meat was that it failed to drip and feed the fire. Burgers tended to come out dry rather than juicy when using the leaner variety of beef. He found that an 80 percent lean to 20 percent fat ratio worked well for his brand of burgers.

He aimed for a little over a quarter-pound patty per burger. That was a good-sized chunk to pat out, but most of the extra fat cooked out, leaving the burger smaller when cooked than when raw and waiting to go on the grill. He never measured out anything. It was a simple thing to just eyeball the ground beef and grab enough to make the patty a bit larger than the size of the buns.

It was best to use fresh meat; nothing from the freezer, fresh or not. Years ago he had used meat partially frozen or quickly defrosted in the microwave or dipped in water to thaw quickly, but once the patty began to cook on the grill, it lent itself to crumble badly.

He always used his hands to pat and shape the patties. In his opinion, the contraptions sold in stores to shape burgers packed the meat too hard. Patties made this way were tougher and prevented the marinade from soaking in. He would use his thumb to mash down on the center of the patty. This allowed the marinade to sit on top while cooking and do the most good. Before setting them on the grill he would sprinkle them on both sides with lemon pepper seasoning. These he would cook slowly over an even bed of charcoal. Slow cooking and even temperatures guaranteed tender juicy burgers. Many of his compadres insisted that he could coax better flavor using mesquite coals, but he knew they did not know what they were talking about. Mesquite had its uses, deservedly so, but not for the hamburger patty.

Using a spatula for flipping the burgers was best. If a fork was used, holes would be made in the patty, making its juices run out. The meat would then turn out tough and dry. And he never mashed the burgers. His method took longer, but the patient were rewarded with a better tasting burger. At mid-morning on this day, it was his job to produce 80 by lunchtime.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


More often than not in the man's work-weary life, South Texas had endured long dry spells, and dry times were always hot times. Temperatures at the ranch that summer hovered around the 100-degree mark for the better part of the day. It seemed to him that la nopalera thrived in that sun and this morning his job was to burn the spines off from acres of prickly pear. Cattle were growing hungry in this drought and el jefe had made it plain that buying trailer loads of feed was not economically practical. So today, the man would be putting out a 2,500-degree roaring flame. It would be hot work. He did not like it, but he was paid to do an honest day's work.

In this terrible heat he would dress accordingly. His pear-burning attire would consist of heavy boots, jeans, a pair of leather chaps to protect his legs from the cactus spines, a heavy shirt, a brush jacket, a bandanna, his large-brimmed straw hat and a pair of White Mule gauntlet gloves. Before turning the valve shut on the chamusquera at the end of the day, he would have sweated gallons from the heat and and the heavy garments, but there was reason for the uncomfortable attire. First, he was about to wade into a patch of prickly pear as tall as a horse. Their spines would be deflected by his boots, chaps, brush jacket, and gloves. This was not work conducted in Bermuda shorts and tennis shoes. Second, he never knew what might be in that patch of pear besides the spiny pear. Rattlesnakes, copperheads, and other unpleasantness such as scorpions, centipedes, and wasps were fond of the shade and protection provided by the pear.

The man would be careful, but he would be alone, too. In the work pickup that morning he had  set a 55-gallon barrel of water with a hand-pump and hose attached. His drinking water, and he had plenty, was iced down in a 3-gallon Igloo in the pickup's cab. The water in the barrel was not for him. It had another purpose. The brush and grass were very dry all around. He would use the pump and hose to soak the ground and vegetation around the patch of pear so it would not catch fire while burning the pear. And, God forbid, he would use it to put out any fires he accidentally started.

Once the grass and ground were dampened, he was ready to begin chamuscando. He shouldered the strap, hung the tank just below his behind and turned open the valve to the tank. The man heard the hiss of the propane bleed out the nozzle, then introduced the venting gas to the flame of his lighter. Instantly, he was rewarded with a sudden roar as two feet of flame leaped out of the business end of the pear burner. The real work had now begun. Like a fly fisherman, he waded into the patch of pear, spewing spine-singeing flame with every watchful step he took.

He was a good man with a pear-burner and there weren't many like him these days. In this horrendous heat from the sun and the blast from the pear burner, if he didn't dehydrate and die of thirst, he could expect to burn the spines off an acre or so of pear in a day. It would take his jefe's cattle most of the next day to chew the nopales to a stringy mass, extracting its nourishment and moisture. At the rate the cattle would take to satisfy their four stomachs, the man would be repeating this process a good part of the summer. He hoped that el jefe was praying for rain as much as he.

The man also prayed that he could keep his mind off the cigarettes tucked in the visor of the ranch pickup. He usually kept them in his shirt pocket, but it would not be long before they'd be soaked through with his sweat and ruined. With a pear-burner in operation you did not smoke. The pressurized propane being bled out from behind his ass made him nervous, and when he was nervous, he liked to smoke.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Stemmed by a Valve

The great marvel of the ranch tractor is that it can take a man of nominal abilities and empower him like a superman. It is one of the most enabling motorized contraptions of the last hundred years. But as with all things super, it has an Achilles' heel. It matters not if the tractor and its operator are pulling, pushing, lifting, digging, or hauling. When a valve stem goes bad, the little man is super no more.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Oral Gratification

A hungry man could quell the growl in his stomach with creamy cheddar cheese sandwiched between light buttery crackers. With no eateries open in Benavides on a Sunday afternoon, some probably do. On weekends, a good bit of its male population customarily down a few brews, then set themselves to barbecue great slabs of beef soon after the sun begins its westward arc into the cool of the evening. In the big picture, it would be best if they abandoned their grills and ice chests. Excessive beer consumption, coupled with high blood pressure and diabetes is cutting Latino males down to size one piece at a time; like a toe, a foot, a leg, if not their hearts and livers.  A few Lance's Captains Wafers do not seem as threatening.

Mejor me conformo con unas quantas galletitas. Once the doctors cut an appendage off, another will not grow to take its place like a lizard does its tail.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lost His Touch

Entertaining no credence in the practice, the man first witnessed dowsing over 30 years ago. On that distant afternoon, it was a long-buried waterline that required discovery before repairs could begin. He watched as a ranch hand took a pair of welding rods from his pickup's toolbox and worked to beat their flux coating off with a small ball-peen hammer. Once the steel rods were bare, the ranch hand took the end of each, expertly bending it to a 45-degree angle. Removing his work gloves, the ranch hand reached back for the rods and walked out to the open area were the suspected waterline lay. Taking each rod gingerly, he balanced each between his calloused thumbs and bent forefingers, the longer ends pointing straight ahead and parallel to the ground. The ranch hand began to walk in a straight line. He took slow and deliberate steps; never taking his eyes off the rods. After covering only a few yards of ground, the rods mysteriously swung into each other, forming an X. He stomped a boot heel into the ground and declared, "Por aqui corra la línea."

A few shovelfuls of dirt later proved him correct. The man, moderately convinced, gave dowsing a shot, and to his surprise, was a skeptic no longer. On the ranch that summer, he put his own dowsing ability to work many times.  Unashamedly, he was now a believer.

Flash forward to March 2011 and the location of buried waterlines is once more the afternoon's topic. The years had blurred any memory the man once had of which direction the old pipe network followed below the surface from points A to B to C.

In short order, the man fashioned the prerequisite dowsing rods and got to work. He paced back and forth over the hard-packed earth, but with no success. The buried pipe refused to be revealed. He tried again and again. The man suspected he had lost his touch after so many years, but then, perhaps not. A confluence of background interference may have thwarted the dowsing effort.

Inside a 25-foot radius were a hurricane fence, a clothesline, two cesspools and their overflow line, the root systems of two large oak trees and other variables. The man and his rods never stood a chance.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Heavy Metal

The old woman had never planted a flower garden. Not when she was a young girl. Not when she was courted for four years by her future husband who lived to see their golden wedding anniversary. Certainly not when she was raising their six kids. Between cooking, washing, and kissing boos boos on her little ones' scraped knees to make it "all go away," there was never the time. She enjoyed some success with the potted variety. Caring for those in her screened porch was a small task, but she had never knelt under the sun to coax petaled color out of the South Texas soil. She did not have to. There had really been no need when she had been eight, or eighteen, or even now at 84. For countless springs, the wild flowers had bloomed outside her kitchen window at their appointed time and that was garden enough for her.

When the last dates marking the frosty mornings were torn from her wall calendar, the woman became concerned for wild flowers that had yet to sprout. A scattering of dead and dry knee-high buffelgrass mixed with low brush threatened to choke the promise of spring color from the field out in front of her place. Regular mowing of those acres had gotten away from the parties responsible. It gave her a sad feeling to think that those pretty flowers would have to compete for space with brush and grass that already enjoyed an advantage.

The flowers that come up were seldom the same from year to year. Some seasons the field was a plush of scarlet hosted by a profusion of Indian Blanket. Other times, Yellow Flax would best the sun for golden color. Accenting the pallet on the field were lavender highlights of Texas Thistle, white and yellow daisies, Blue Bonnets, and what one hardy old timer referred to as yellowtops. Most people simply called them sunflowers.

Aside from the rich color, what the woman appreciated best was that nature did all the work, except for the mowing. This was already the middle of March and time was growing short. It would be a great disappointment to her not to be able to help those flowers along.

"Por eso, Dios me dio hijos," was her silent affirmation to God. The woman's hopes would not be foiled. At two in the afternoon the mechanized rumble of heavy metal reached her ears. She walked to the window. With the fingers of one hand she pulled the blind's narrow slats apart to peer out and focus on the source. She saw a sizable tractor pulling a shredder with its wings folded up. The driver, a man in short sleeves, jeans, and a black cap, turned off the highway and rolled his way through the cattleguard.

The operator wasted no time. She heard him power down the machine and the bladed wings came down to cover the ground. With a black puff of diesel exhaust, the machine became aggressive again and began tearing into the dead growth.

The woman who loved wild flowers pulled her fingers away from the blinds. The plastic slits snapped back to their horizontal positions. "Gracias, Señor," she said softly, her lips barely moving. She slipped on her shoes and went outside to watch the show and her answer to prayer.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bad Picture, Good Company

Melba brought the frosty margarita glass to her lips and took a cautious sip, and then her eyes lit up. It was not a margarita. Instead, she had discovered the mild titillation of the creamy brandy alexander. More commonly served in a cocktail glass, the bar's faux pas did little to diminished her approval.

The wife and I were dinning with good company. Cutting into some of the finest beef fatted by American grain, we were a happy lip-smacking group.  To look from face to face around the table and take in the content of the conversation reaffirmed the satisfaction and contentment of middle age. These are very good days to carry on without totting the weight of adolescence or the angst of young adulthood.

The sole regret of the evening was the miserable quality of the picture that captured the good cheer and fellowship. In dim light, cell phone cameras do not serve us well.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

No Batteries Required

Count yourself lucky that you did not wake up wearing a cow's hide eighteen winters ago on the former El Agua Poquita Ranch. Far removed from the clean glass, shiny chrome, and paved thoroughfares of the country's population centers, growing beef-on-the-hoof to keep the fast food joints and steakhouses in business is often a rough and bloody business. Ranch work is not always pretty and certainly not the romanticized canvas that the naive and uninformed have in their sheltered little heads.

The good guy in the white hat is my dad. Sólo quedan los recuerdos.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Apple Seeds

The little boy with the smiling eyes stretched out an open palm dotted with apple seeds. Looking up to me, he says, "Let's plant them." How could I not say yes.

One of his lessons at school this week centered around the life cycle of plants. Naturally, it begins with a seed. In short order I secured all the essentials for a successful planting and before we lost our natural light, the seeds were potted in two large plastic cups, watered, and set out were the day's sun would do them the most good.

Benavides, Texas is in the USDA Hardiness Zone 8. That does not bode well for apples. I did not tell him that. Nor did I tell him should the seeds sprout and survive to young tree status, apples require cross-pollination to bear fruit.  No matter, he and I will be happy to see a couple of tiny sprouts  poke through the surface with a tender green stem with tiny leaves. Anyhow, we are not growing fruit here, he and I are growing memories.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Out of Gas

The old man was not sure if the boys on skateboards were laughing at the limping dog that had crossed his path or at him, riding past by on a girl's bicycle. It didn't matter. What was not going to be funny was that he was going to have a limp as bad as the dog's when he eventually reached his destination and climbed off the bike. His knees were hurting something awful and the force of every down-stroke sent a discomforting pain he felt all the way to his hip sockets. "I must have been out of my mind," he mumbled to himself. Hell. He was almost there and there was no sense in turning back. The time and place to exercise better judgment were behind him.

When he had slid out of bed that morning the thought of peddling across town to buy the paper and a pack of Winstons had made perfect sense to him. Why bother cranking up the Chevy pickup and burn $3.59 a gallon gasoline, when with a little effort, he could just peddle out to the Kwik-Stop and back? With only one convenience store to service the small community, the scattering of houses, trailer homes and abandoned buildings could hardly be called a town. The old man figured he could get there and back in short order. At most, the round trip couldn't be more than a couple of miles. Besides, it was a matter of simple economics.

The cost of everyday basics from milk and bread to aspirins and haircuts was shooting past the reach of people on a fixed income, such as himself. Ultimately, things would turn around, they always did, in spite of the best efforts of the politicians in Austin or Washington. Trouble was, he was too old to wait around for the next cycle of recovery and prosperity. He was taking matters into his own hands, thus, the bicycle came into play.

When his granddaughter still enjoyed her visits to the small town and with him, he had bought her the bike. It was second-hand, but in excellent condition. That was years ago and his grand baby was off at college now. Not long after he had bought the bicycle, she had grown to discover other interests and her visits grew less frequent. The bike, a silent memento of livelier and happier times, now hung in a storage shed in back of his small frame house. For that matter, the house, too, was a muted memory of a life he had shared with his wife of 60 years. Little had changed in their home since her passing, except for the flowerbeds. He had given up trying to keep them up. What had been a simple pleasure for her was a laborious undertaking for the widower. The small yard these days, front and back, was mostly blanketed in what the locals called zacate chino. It hardly required his attention.

The old man coasted to a stop by pump number one at the Kwik-Stop. He did not dismount, but leaned there against the support post of the large awning shading the pumps.  It would be a few minutes before he could draw the strength to lift his tired and shaky leg across the low frame of the bicycle. This had been a mistake. He was out of gas and he still had to get back. Patting the breast pocket of his jacket, he reached for his Winstons and lit one.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bienvenido al Anochecer

Of the blue in the sky, Georgia O'Keeffe, the American artist, said that it would "always be there as it is now, after all man's destruction is finished." No doubt, a fatalistic commentary, but inarguably true. This evening, had she been sitting in the porch alongside me, I would have hung on her every word concerning her evaluation of the colored strokes that God used to painted the sky to my west.

"What do you think of that, Ms. O'Keeffe," I would have asked. "Isn't it pretty?"

America lost Georgia on this day 25 years ago, so the question would have been moot. I cannot imagine what she would have turned to me and said en este anochecer.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Ground Will Stop Me

Every time Dad worked off the ground we would caution him to be extra careful. You always have a little fear that one can slip and fall when working in an elevated position. "Don't worry," he would quip, "The ground will stop me." His principle was sound, if not problematic. In the forty-some years I knew him, it was put to the test only a handful of times. The man was incredibly tough and resilient.

This afternoon it was me, a telescoping latter, and an oak my dad planted at the ranch a long time ago. Today, the tree and me are older, but the oak has grown bigger and much taller. With bow saw in hand I climbed and began the work alone. My supervisor of days gone by is no more. Dad has been gone over fifteen years, but I can still hear his retort in my head, "The ground will stop me," as I work my way deeper into the leafy canopy.

I welcome the labor before me and I know how to work the saw; methodically and with purpose. There is no wasted motion and the limbs, large and small, drop steadily to the ground. "Toma tu tiempo," Dad would say. "No hay apuro."

 I show respect for the tree. The work of the saw cannot be undone, and so a measure of thought for the tree's eventual aesthetics must come into play. In and of itself, an oak is a beautiful piece of God's creation. My actions off the ground are simply to better define that beauty to suit the needs of people. As the limbs fall, I climb down from my perch to survey the work from ground level; stepping away from the perimeter of the tree to gauge our progress. Satisfied with what my eyes see, I study the effect of what my next cut will produce, then proceed to move the latter. Up again I go; satisfied that it goes well.

An unexpected bonus was the blustery wind. The sound of limbs creaking under its strain and watching them bend contributed to my sense of self preservation.  Except for my 84-year-old mother watching my progress through her living room window a few yards away, there was no one to call for help if things went south. Yes, the ground would stop me, but it would hurt.

Friday, March 4, 2011

En el Monte

With apologies to the acting great, Robert Duvall, the prolific director, Francis Ford Coppala, and gifted screenwriter, John Milius, permit me to state that "I love the smell of mesquite smoke in the evening." I really do.

Our men's Thursday night meetings have moved from their former urban setting off a lonesome side street in Benavides to a rugged patch of uneven ground in the thorny brush a few miles outside of the pueblito. The location offers no electricity or running water, and what comforts we find there, exist only in our minds. The supplies necessary to conduct a good meeting have to be trucked in over a back-jarring road strewn with caliche rocks the size of fists. The crooked way hacked out through the dense mesquite is hard on man and machine.

It is a mean march by truck and well worth the punishment. Except for distant sounds of sporadic motor traffic on 359, the encampment's solitude is near absolute. Our centerpiece en el monte is the mesquite fire and its distinctive aroma that I like so much.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Comí Muy Bien Anoche

We sit and eat at the long table as though we were condemned men who accepted that they would never see another sunrise; shoveling forkfuls of cheese and gravy laden foods into our mouths with a self gratifying lust. We are a weak people; the crowd I run with. Last night, our bellies would have been easily satisfied with only the pre-meal tortilla chips and condiments, and a single beer to wash them down. Self discipline never makes an appearance at restaurants that serve up steak, potatoes, or Mexican food. As the evening progresses, clinking knives and forks on porcelain plates produce a bad symphony celebrating our gluttony. When I push my empty plate away, the sneering specter of guilt pulls up a chair alongside me and begins to laugh in my ear.

"Why do you do this?" I hear it say.

After the last swig of my beer, I set the cold bottle back down on the ring of condensation it printed on the table and say to myself, "Por qué yo quise comer bien."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Feliz Cumpleaños

The United States of America had a vigorous space program going the year my little brother was born. NASA had begun launching its ambitious two-man Gemini flights into earth orbit in its bid to beat the Russians to the moon and the Space Race was hot. As little brother stretched and filled out, American would come to learn that LBJ was not. These were exciting  and changing times.

My kid brother is the last born of my siblings. Feliz cumpleaños, hermanito.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Boy, the Books, the Bond

If the time and resources were readily available to them, the boy and the man could probably trace their ancestral lineages back 10 generations and discover that their roots never cross. They do not share kindred blood; not one precious drop. The difference in their ages is 50 years, yet the two are close friends. He knows the man's cell phone number by heart and calls him often, uttering a refrain that is a glad sound to the man's ears; "Hey! Come pick me up. I want to go to your house." The words sound a happy chord that make the man smile inside. He is fortunate to hear it on many weekends and on afternoons when the boy comes in from school. The boy's company contributes more good to the man's health than the blood pressure medication on his nightstand. The two get along splendidly and often read books together.

Little boys have a fascination for dinosaurs. Whether on the pages of a book, in tiny colored plastic figures, on television or motion pictures, the image of the gargantuan meat eager is riveting. Interest in them is universal. In the ranks of little boys, few exceptions exist. His little friend owns dozens of illustrated children's books on the subject of dinosaurs and the small volumes are scattered all about. They are in the man's pickup, the man's wife's car, in the four drawers of their living room coffee table, in the boy's home, his grandmother's home, his great-grandmother's home and in his school backpack.  He reads them all. Many times the boy asks the man to read them to him. The young mind asks questions. He formulates opinions. He conjures up "what if" scenarios centered around what effect dinosaurs would have on people's existence should the toothy giants make a surprise appearance today or tomorrow in the town they call home.

The man and the boy are fortunate to have each other. It is a sad little town they live in. It is no exaggeration when its people lament, "there is nothing to do." Thank God for books. They are one of the many strands in the bond the boy and the man share.