Tall Tales and Short Stories

These are stories about different events in my life. Some are in fiction form due to the age of the writer at the time of the event in relation to the memory of the writer at the time of writing. Age does that sometimes. Enjoy the stories and provide some feedback.

Location: Fort Smith, Arkansas, United States

July 31, 2006

Traveling America: Michigan

Truck drivers see that part of America few Americans ever experience. They see the greatness of the cities, mountains, and casinos; they also see the worst of the slums, rubble, and casinos. The spectacles and resonances of Pax Americana allows the driver to experience the side of America only seen on the evening news. As a writer, I like to show, in detail, what I have seen, experienced, or heard. Sometimes, all three.

Traveling through the cities, I see the erosion of public works becomes apparent. Trash strewn along the inner-city roads, gang graffiti, and deteriorating asphalt are only parts of the picture. These are the signs of a poorly managed city. Some cities are worse than others; some cities have deteriorated to the cusp of anarchy. Detroit, in the mid-nineties, was a good example. While leaving downtown, I was witness to what I would later find out was a car bombing.

I unloaded my cargo in a desperate part of Detroit, just blocks away from Tiger Stadium. Once a bustling section of town, the area had turned into a ghetto; a slum that testified to the rot of inner cities and the decomposing mindset of modern city fathers. The stadium was to be replaced far away from the fragments of humanity that were left to reside in the forgotten zones of the old city. The truck radio played Motown hits from this very section. I drove past strip centers, long boarded up, and decomposing school yards. The youths of this area festered on the street corners, waiting for the opportunity of a truck at a stop light or a passing handout. Ahead lay the onramp, my escape. Then an explosive event put an exclamation mark on the entire experience.

Debris flew in every direction from the explosion. A shard of metal – a part of a bumper, a strip of the fender, or a piece of the engine block – came directly at me. Though I was on the other side of the freeway and traveling at sixty miles per hour, it came at me as if honed in on my essence, my being. It turned slowly over and over, spinning in its own orbit. I stepped on the brakes. Still, it came at me. I stared at it; flames from the car erupted again and again behind the churning piece of metal. Cars swerved; tires screeched; the radio played on. I stared at it as it came for me. As the truck came to a stop, the metallic missile lost its momentum and fell to the pavement two lanes away.

In that same state, I witnessed one of nature’s more remarkable sights. This gave me a new perspective on a state that had been a disappointment to me beforehand.

Ike is my best friend. We grew up together and had built a brotherly bond. In fact, in many ways, Ike and I were more like brothers than my own brother. The night his first child was born, I carried a load of freight from northern Wisconsin, across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (the UP), down to central Michigan. The crossing from the UP to Lower Michigan is at St. Ignace, across the Mackinac Bridge, known as “Big Mac” by the locals. St. Ignace is a small tourist town with a population of about 1,500. It is mirrored by Mackinaw City (pop. 900); neither large by modern standards. The bridge itself sports an awe-inspiring view of the Mackinac Straits that connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. When I crossed the bridge this particular night, the sun was setting, presenting a golden glow across the water on the west side of the bridge and a starry reflection on the eastern side. Darkness descended when I passed over the bridge and through Mackinaw City. The interstate below the city was buffeted by forest and occasional farms.

My cell phone suddenly rang. As I pulled to the shoulder of the road to answer the phone, I noticed strange lights in my mirror.

“Hello,” I asked as I investigated the lights.

“Well, you’re an uncle, now.” Ike called to let me know that his daughter, Meagan, had been born just a few minutes before. “She’s beautiful. And she has the brightest eyes.”

“That’s great. How’s Holly?”

“Momma’s doing fine. She’s resting.”

“Hey, hold on a second,” I asked as the lights in my mirror started glowing with varied brightness. I opened the door of my truck and leaned out to get a better view.

“You’re not gonna believe this. As we speak, I am looking at the Northern Lights. How cool is that?” I may not always remember her birth date, but I will always remember the night she was born. My best friend’s daughter is born and nature celebrates.

It is the contrast of these two types of events that give truck drivers a view of the real America, what she is and what she can be.

July 23, 2006

Waiting for a Friend

I sat in the coffee shop, waiting for Marie. A mutual friend mentioned that she was in town and would be stopping by the Sweet Bay coffee shop sometime around three o’clock that afternoon. I had not seen Marie for several months and wanted to catch up on old times.

I arrived around two o’clock and walked in through the patio. The thick caramel aroma, tinged with a slight scent of chocolate, wafted through the warm breeze coming in on the covered patio. Choosing a seat, I placed my notepad and pen on the table and went to the counter to order. The list of coffees available overwhelmed me. Not wanting to appear lacking in hip-ness, I asked the Matthew Broderick look-a-like to make a suggestion.

The patio’s atmosphere was inviting. Top forty music of the eighties and nineties slipped out of the small, well placed speakers lending a light ambiance. The soft tunes created a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy the rich flavors of the double caffeine charged coffee. The crowd drifted in and out of the patio, equally divided between business meetings and resting shoppers.

Outside, soft white clouds dotted the bright blue sky, hinting at a warm spring day. Creekmore Park, with its leafless trees and sparse activity, contrasted noticeably with Rogers Avenue and its traffic passing in intermittent patterns. An occasional designer walker, with their colorful outfits of blue, red, or pastel, passed by on the jogging path. They walked in their own little world, pointing to inanimate objects, and talking to themselves.

The conversations of chattering patrons drew my mind back inside the patio. Teenage girls sat in one corner engaged in gift giving with one of their own while three men in another corner tried to top each other with their business exploits. Behind me, someone sat with their computer - the “You’ve Got Mail” alert going off in a regular pattern of every three or four minutes.

A car, out of view from my perch, pulled into the parking lot. The Go-Go’s “We’ve Got the Beat” blared from the radio, just loud enough to drown out the Sweet Bay speakers. A minute later, Marie flamboyantly bounced up the steps in her usual happy-go-lucky sachet.

Upon a Ledge

I sit upon a ledge
Looking on the masses far below.
I wonder about their daily lives
As they scatter to and fro.
Do they each have loves?
Are they lonely as am I?
Does it matter that I am here
or do they even spy?

As I sit upon a ledge
I see them living life in haste.
They scatter in confusion
Yet nothing is left to waste.
Though appearance of disorder
They are scheduled to a tee;
And while I peer at lowly ants,
I feel someone peers at me.

Hale Bopp

March of 1997, presented one of the most extraordinary sights of my life. While taking a load of pipe and other sundry oilfield equipment to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, I watched the skies at night for much ballyhooed Hale-Bopp comet. Driving out of Houston and its thick, smog filled skies, the visibility did not allow for star gazing. But, the farther north I traveled, the clearer the atmosphere became.

By the time I reached Liberal, Kansas, the comet brightly contrasted against the night sky. However, an early spring storm cut across the western horizon, virtually blocking all heavenly objects from view. It was not until the third night of my travels that the celestial comet and its massive tail were fully visible. By this time, Nebraska highlighted my mirrors and Wyoming lay before me.

A stop in Cheyenne to fuel and shower and then up Interstate 25. Around three in the morning, a tire blew out on my trailer, requiring a search for a tire shop. I found one in Buffalo. Buffalo is a small community at the junction of Interstates 25 and 90. Nestled near the top of a small peak in the Bighorn Mountains, the thin, crisp air allows for easy breathing and beautiful nightscapes.

While the mechanic took his time repairing the blown tire, I went to the rear of the building where there were no lights. There it was. At this altitude, the comet appeared within grasp. The light from Hale-Bopp illuminated the sky just enough to cast shadows. Its tail trailed across the sky, reminiscent of a slow motion camera view of a thrown baseball.

I stood in awe of the celestial creation. It will be forever imprinted on the canvas of my mind. I owe the opportunity to a blown tire and a slow moving mechanic. One never knows what circumstances will present. We must stop from time to time to enjoy the opportunities life presents for we many never have that chance again.

July 10, 2006

Totally Useless How-to's: Crabbing

Growing up on the Texas Gulf Coast, a popular pastime was crabbing. As kids, we would go to the beach or an inland waterway to set up a crabbing site. We would place a cooler and chairs in a central location. From there, we started spacing crab lines about every ten feet in each direction.

Crabbing is very easy and fun. On one end of the crab line you tie a brick or pole. On the other end; chicken parts. Personally, I like chicken necks. The ridges along the neck act as a natural barrier to the string sliding off. But, thigh bones and leg bones work very well, too. About a foot above the chicken part, tie a weight to the string, just big enough to drag the bait to the bottom.

Once the chicken part is tied, the task turns to placing the bait into the water. No successful crabber just throws the bait in and moves on. There is a science to this. Scout the waterway. Are there any bridge pilings or large concrete slabs? Crabs love concrete slabs and pilings. If not, look for runoff areas along the shore. Crabs will gather around a natural feeding area such as this.

When you have found your location, gather the string in one hand, careful to loop it so as to allow the string to easily pass from your hand when tossed. Keep the end with the bait in the other hand along with a short length of string. Now, gently swing the chicken part in the air until you have built up a rhythm. Once rhythm has been achieved, release the chicken part; at the same time opening the hand holding the looped string. (It is important to note that you should be facing the water and your target when performing this task.) Repeat this with each line.
When using numerous lines, you find occasions when crabs are biting heavily at one area. Often, this will be away from your cooler. Crabs have an incredible sense of direction. So placing them on the ground will allow them to escape. What are you to do when you have several crabs on several lines and nothing handy to put them in? Try this simple solution.

How to Put a Crab to Sleep

Materials needed:
  • 1 crab, at least 3" to tip to tip to be considered a keeper
  • 1 blade of grass, 6" to 8" in length with a tassel of seeds at the tip (Don’t worry; this type of grass is common on the Gulf Coast).

Firmly grasp a crab behind its pinchers. Carefully lay the crab on its back, making sure none of its legs are underneath the body. The crab will violently shake its legs in an attempt to turn over. Before the crab is able to right itself, take the blade of grass and gently rub across the underbelly of the crab in an oval motion.

Within a few minutes, the crab’s legs will slow in their movement. This is a sure sign of success. Continue until the crab’s legs have stopped moving. The crab is now asleep. If this fails, repeat process from the beginning until successful.

NOTE: If you watch closely you will see water bubbles come from the sleeping crab’s mouth. This is commonly referred to as a crab snore.

Hank Frank From Odessa

On a family trip to Shreveport, LA to visit cousins, my father hatched another of his pranks. Upon arrival, he promptly went to the phone and called our single, dateless cousin, Brenda. She was sweetest of all of my cousins. University educated, she had a strange gullibility, almost too trusting. And Dad took advantage of her predicament.

"Uh. Hello. Is this Brenda?" he asked while disguising his voice.

"Yes it is. Who is this?" Brenda replied.

"My name is Hank Frank. I’m from Odessa," Dad said. "My friend is a salesman and he told me to give you a call when I got to town. Uh. Would you like to go to a movie or dinner or something?"

"Who is your friend?" Brenda queried.

"Oh, his name is David. He’s a salesman for Dresser Industries," Dad answered. "He said that you would be someone I would really like. He thought we would have a lot in common."

And so it went. Dad poured on the charm for five minutes, continually drawing Brenda in to his web. When he hung up the phone, Hank had a date for the night.

An hour later, Brenda arrived at her parent’s house to say "hi" to us before her "date." Her hair coiffed perfectly; her dress fit to accentuate her… ahem… assets. Even her shoes were chosen to impress. She floated into the house; the corners of her smile nearly touching her ears; the shine in her eyes lit the dimly lit room.

"Are you going out with Hank?" Dad asked.

Suddenly, the light disappeared, the hair fell, and the dress literally shifted. Brenda just stared while her mind tried to process this newfound information.

"CURTIS!" Her realization set in.

We all busted up in laughter.

"That’s just not right. I should have known."

July 07, 2006

The Flood of April, 1979

Lightning burst through the bedroom window; illuminating the entire room. A majestic oak from across the driveway cast an eerie shadow across the opposite wall. Seconds later, the house shook as thunder rolled overhead.

Gasping in momentary fear, unaware of my surroundings, I awoke. Though violent claps of thunder shook me awake, I attempted to embrace the slumber that had just escaped. The ting of small pieces of metal from Dad’s belt could be heard through the hallway doors – theirs and mine. Sounds of my father dressing meant it must have been five-thirty.

Lightening. Another thunderclap. Shadows now came through the window from a new angle. The storm had moved, yet the rain still pelted the window and bricks in sheets. Roaring wind rushing through the piney woods sounded like a freight train coming near. Something was different. Sleep finally returned.

I awoke again, this time as the smell of bacon and coffee slithered into my room. Rain still pattered against the window – only lighter now. Who was cooking? Puzzled, I pulled on my jeans. Dad would often cook breakfast on his days off, but Mom never cooked breakfast on a school day. Wandering across the living room, towards the kitchen, Dad’s dark blue fire hat came into view on the counter. Why was he still home? He should have been at work hours ago.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Trees are down across the road by the Inman place,” a grin across his face was offset by his Conway Twitty hair and semi-Elvis sideburns. He still wore his crisp blue Houston Fire Department uniform; his name tag proudly proclaimed “FRIERY” above his left breast pocket; crossed fire nozzles gleaned from the tips of the stiffened shirt collar. “I called in and took a personal day. Breakfast is ready if you are hungry.”

“Yeah, okay,” I yawned back at him.

“That old man’s pond is starting to overflow into the ditches,” his grin broadened.

That old man – that crusty, mean, old man would be more appropriate – had a pond on his property at the front end of our road. He never let anyone fish in his pond; he just sat by the bank, feeding his catfish. Rumor had it he had a metal plate in his head from a Korean War wound. If true, that might explain his strange behavior, but not excuse it. We contracted to mow his property once. He would scream about branches and rocks being thrown into the water by the blades as I passed near the pond. All he cared about were his precious catfish. Every day, we drove past that pond; there he sat, in a lawn chair, casting bread crumbs and corn onto the water. Frenzied catfish churned up the water while they fought over the food.

It took a minute for Dad’s statement to sink in. That’s why he grinned. All of those catfish would be in the ditches, easy prey to be taken. I grinned back at him over a plate of biscuits-and-gravy with bacon.

Paw-paw, or Pop as the grandkids called him, came in from next door; a trickle of tobacco juice ran down his chin and a toothless smile. His damp, disheveled clothes having no color coordination hung lifelessly on his worn frame. I pulled on my waders; he took off his hat. His three or four hairs on top of his otherwise bald head stood straight up from the static electricity in the air.

Matt, my nine year-old brother, wandered in from the other side of the living room. His bright red hair pointed in every direction but down. He was skinny and tall for his age, all legs and arms like Gumby.

“Do I have to go to school?” he asked, anticipation coated every word.

“You can’t. The bus can’t get down the road,” Dad said. “Go get some warm clothes on. We’re going fishing.”

Matt spun around and darted off to his room. An energetic flash of fur replaced him in the kitchen. Somehow, Frito, Mom’s miniature collie, had escaped from the bedroom and wanted in on the action. More to the point, he wanted some of the bacon. Frito jumped up on Pop, begging for food. Pop had an irrational and unexplained fear of dogs. It’s not that he was afraid of dogs; rather he was unable to give them the proper attention they demanded. For some unknown reason, given the choice, dogs would demand his attention before anyone else in the room. So, Pop cursed him in some sort of gibberish he thought was Spanish, while trying to get as far away from Frito as possible.

“Curtis… uh, Matt… uh, Steve, get this thing away from me!” Pop always went through the family names until he got to the one he wanted.

We went out to the truck and loaded up nets, coolers, a chainsaw, and a 410 shotgun – for the snakes. It felt strange to load up for a fishing trip and not bother with poles or tackle boxes. We drove down that narrow, limb-strewn, blacktop road in horror and awe of the transformation the storm had elicited. Trees, laden with the saturation of hours of rain, lay bent across the road from each side forming a pine needle laced tunnel. Areas where water never stood were now submerged. Snakes slithered across the road in search of higher, and dryer, ground. A Timber Rattler stretched completely across the road, the tail and head touched opposite sides. The impact of the truck running over the rattler jarred us. We looked out the back window and saw it writhing in the street, curling up upon itself in pain. Narrower pines leaned over against massive oaks. Ditches, only a foot or two deep when dry, spilled rivulets across the road. A tiny creek, with typically only six inches of water, was a torrential river, funneled through a four foot wide pipe under the road. Much of the water on one side, spewed skyward while the water that made it into the pipe shot out the other end as if under some sort of mechanical pressure. Clay red and loamy brown water then rushed down stream to the San Jacinto River to join up with flood waters from various parts of the county.

On the other side of the creek, the landscape opened up. It looked like a scene from a disaster movie. Water stood above the front steps of elegant houses, plastic toys floated across once pristine pastures, bottom rails of fences had disappeared from sight, horses stood in distress. Down a side road, kids played in rafts that floated in the street. One ran behind a flat-bottom boat, pushing it down the road. Our passing truck sent them in a mad rush to play in the waves. The surreal conditions that existed in the little neighborhood overwhelmed me.

Dad stopped the truck with a squeal. Catfish were in the overflow trench that came from the pond. The trench - deep enough to drain the surrounding ground - wound through an open field, spilling into the ditch along the country road. Catfish looked like massive salmon flunkies, trying to swim upstream, but moving, ever faster, downstream.

“Get in the ditch and start throwing them up here in the street,” Dad said, as he motioned towards the water.

The ditch, normally three feet deep in this area, flowed with water four feet deep. Easing myself into the murky water, “ease” was impossible. My feet slipped out from under me, sending me under. Upward they went while I struggled to keep my head above water. Catfish, from every direction, banged into my legs, my back, even my head. Reaching for anything to stop my progression downstream towards the creek, my hands found a root and grabbed on for dear life.

Gradually regaining my foothold and bracing myself against the rushing water, the stampede of catfish continued to slam against me. Reaching down, I held my arms together, and rose up with a large catfish. He shook violently; the spike in his dorsal fin pierced my arm, drawing blood. My arm jerked away and the whiskered fiend escaped. This method had to be rethought.

So, rather than catching the entire body of a fish, my hands deftly felt under the water for gills. Once found, my bare hands plunged deep in to the coarse gills to gain a firm grasp. Success! Out of the water came the largest catfish I had ever caught – with or without fishing line. I quickly threw him onto the middle of the road. Dad reached down and hooked a scale into the lip of the catfish. As he pulled him up, the fish struggled against the invasive hook. Pop paced up and down the ditch; worried, excited, back to worry.

“Twelve and half pounds,” Dad called out. He turned and threw the fish into the truck bed.
So it went for an hour: grab a fish and throw it on the road, weigh the fish, and throw it in the truck. If it was less than two pounds, Dad threw it back in behind me. An older couple had set up down stream from us and tried to catch anything that got past me. Their laughter sang as they would catch another catfish. Every now and then, I would sneak a peak back at them to see how big a fish they had caught.

Suddenly, the old man came out, a shotgun in hand. Though the gun was never pointed at anyone; the implied threat made us uneasy. He ranted about his catfish. He yelled and screamed that we had to put his fish back in the pond. As quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared.

Strain of the water and weight of the fish soon tired me, so we exchanged places. The view from the top was better. In the back of the truck, Matt tried to line the fish up, head to tail. He would get a few lined up, and then step over to grab another. Vibrations of the movement in the truck caused the fish to flop all over. Dull “thuds” of their heads banging the bed were offset by the crisp “slap” of their tails. Matt raced back and forth, trying to regain control over the errant fish. This was a new twist on the “herding cats” theme.

A short while later, a sheriff’s patrol pulled up. Slowly, the deputy climbed out of his car, mindful of the slick road and rising water. As he walked over and glanced into the truck bed, his eyebrows rose at the sight in the bottom. Cordially, he asked how we were doing and if we had fishing permits. (Fishing permits were not actually needed because rod and reels were not in use. The law has since changed.) Mostly, the deputy made small talk while we continued. He told us about some of the flooding in other parts of the county. The Governor Clements declared the county a disaster area; President Carter would later issue a disaster declaration for the area. The storm positioned itself over Conroe, in Montgomery County, and then opened up the spigot. Some areas received as much as fourteen inches of rain overnight. Other counties were affected, but we had caught the brunt.

The old man reappeared, though without his shotgun. His attitude chafed the officer; especially when he told the deputy to order us to return his fish.

“Why?” the deputy replied. “They are just going to come back down that outlet, down this ditch, into that creek, and, eventually, end up on someone else’s table. At least your neighbors will have something to eat instead of some stranger.”

“I don’t want anyone eating my fish,” the old man fumed.

“Well, there’s nothing you can do about that. The fish are on public property now. They are free for anyone.”

The rage built up in the old curmudgeon so much his wrinkled mug looked like it would explode. As he stormed off, his hands flailed in all directions and he screamed insults over his shoulder.

By now, the truck bed was covered. We had more fish than we could possibly store. So, discretion being the better part of valor, we decided to take what we had and go home. The officer agreed and he left as well.

When we returned to the house, the catfish were exhausted. Matt finally got them all lined up. The entire bed of the truck was covered. Mom came out and took a Polaroid of Dad squatting down beside the fish. When we started to clean them, Pop kept a tally of the weight: one hundred and ten pounds of filleted catfish.

A few days later, the Polaroid picture appeared in the Conroe Currier, our local paper. Dad invited the firefighters from his station, and others, to come out for a fish fry. Two shifts of firefighters turned out and plates were sent back to the on duty shift that evening. After all of that, we still had a freezer half-full of catfish.

My father worked full time as a firefighter, part time as a painter, and spent his free time helping others. I had school, work, chores, and homework. With our different interests, we did not spend a lot of time together. Although I had to share this moment with other family members, it will always remain one of my more special memories with him. Three years later, at the beginning of my senior year in high school, in 1982, he passed away from cancer.

Lost and Found in the Great White North

After a long trip from Houston, Texas, to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, I looked forward to a shower and some rest. For the solo drivers, a load would rarely be ready when they arrived, so my anticipation was not unfounded. Team drivers always got the pick of the freight while singles had to wait, sometimes as long as a week. I expected a wait on this trip due to a blizzard was fast approaching, and the temperature had dropped to minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit. The wind’s chill cut through to the bone like a salt laced razor. A hot shower and a warm bed sounded just right.

That idea diminished when I drove through the gate of the freight yard. The only other truck around was the pup truck, a day cab truck used for hauling trailers around town to deliver or pick up freight. By the look of their tires, the trailers in the yard appeared empty. I knew I had not passed any teams heading south on my way in Edmonton, so I was bound to be put to use.

As I drove through the gravel yard, I could see that the permafrost had set in for the winter. The usually soft ground was as hard as rock; even the old ruts from the rainy season jutted up like plateaus from the old west. Snow from two months previous remained piled high on several older trailers. I pulled through the yard, found a place to drop my trailer, unhooked, and went inside for a nice hot cup of coffee.

“Good trip?” Frank, the Edmonton load supervisor, asked. Before I could answer, he added, “Warm up and then come and see me.” He didn’t hang around for a reply.

A stew sat warming on the stove in the break room and the mechanics offered me a bowl. It wasn’t bad really, too much spice for my taste, but it heated up my insides. The coffee tasted weak and thin; when I poured it into my cup, I could almost see through it. It wasn’t like the hard and thick coffee I like in south Louisiana. This pot seemed to have been made in haste, more for something hot than to keep the crew awake.

Finally thawed, I went to see Frank. Bob, a salesman, malingered in the hall. Frank’s office reeked of the typical Canadian offices I had seen around the country. Its cheap wood paneling contrasted with the pictures hung in plastic replicas of Louis XIV frames. The only modern thing in the room was a custom made computer sitting on a folding table.

“What’s up? You got me a load already?”

“Well, it’s like this. I have a load up in Vilna that needs to be in Denver in three days. Can you do it?” Frank asked.

“Where’s Vilna? I’ve never heard of that place,” I told him.

Frank pulled out his map and pointed to a little town located about an hour northeast of town.

“The plant is just outside of town. You turn on this road,” he said, pointing to a farm road that turned north just before reaching town. “Go north about two miles. You will cross some railroad tracks and the plant will be on the right. There’s a blue sign just before their driveway. It’s the only thing out there, so it should be easy to find.”

“It’ll be dark when you get there,” Bob chimed in, “but that plant is lit up like a Christmas tree. You can’t miss it.” (Famous last words.)

I grabbed my paperwork and went out to get my trailer, a fifty-three footer. Once hooked up, I pulled out of the yard into rush hour traffic. What should have taken an hour became two. As I neared Vilna, it became apparent that it had already snowed. Everything was white — the ditches, the trees, the driveways, even the barbed wire fences. Bob was right about it being dark upon my arrival. The darkness only served to compound the difficulty.

I found my road and turned north. Two miles later, the sky was lit up from the plant. I crossed a set of railroad tracks. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the snow had fallen heavier up here. The ditches were level with the road; I couldn’t find a driveway. “Where is that sign?” I kept thinking. “Maybe it is on the far side of the plant.” I eased down the road a little farther. Nothing. “Now what?”

I saw no place to turn around. Looking at my map, I realized the next town was at least fifteen kilometers down the road, but even then there was no guarantee of a place to turn around. I continued on.

Three miles later, I found a farm house on the left with a wide driveway and a road on the right, directly across from the drive. Slowing the truck, I eased onto the side road and proceeded to straighten up for a straight shot backwards — or so I thought.

When I tried to stop, my brakes locked up and the truck started to slide. I let off and then feathered the brakes to a stop. Shifting into reverse, I tried backing up. All eight wheels spun. When I let off the fuel, the truck lurched forward and started down a hill. No brake would help now.

I reached over and switched on my rotating safety light, used for hauling oversize loads, because I didn’t want anyone turning out on to the road with me barreling down out of control. Next, I turned on my spot light and tried to see where this road ended, or whether it had any turns out of view of my headlights. What I saw was the bottom of the hill with a steep rise going back up the other side. Carefully maneuvering the spot light, while piloting with the other hand, I tried to find the top of the next hill. It looked to be at least a mile away.

With that knowledge, I had one choice: gas on it. Gain as much speed as possible in order to get up the other side. With the road frozen, I knew that my truck could not get the traction it would need to reach the top.

So, there I was. One hand on the wheel, one shifting gears, another hand turning on lights and flashers, while a fourth worked the trailer brake to keep it following straight. One small slip and into the snow bank for good. When I reached the bottom, the truck clocked eighty miles per hour. Up, up, up and slower, slower, slower, finally reaching the top. I slowed to thirty-five, but I made it to the crest. Now what?

The road leveled out on the top, I stopped the truck. I turned all of my flashers and rotating lights off. Turning on the spotlight again, I looked to see what lay before me. Darkness. Not a light in sight, not even the stars. All I could do, I was doing. Putting the truck back into gear, I started out into the unknown. Surely someone would come along who could show me the way out of here. I prayed the road didn’t dead end.

After a few minutes of driving, headlights appeared out of the darkness. As they approached I turned my emergency flashers back on to try to flag the driver down. The driver never even slowed. So much for friendly Canadians. Off with the flashers and down the road I went. Another minute or two and another set of headlights. This time, I stopped near the middle of the road and turned on my flashers. The pick-up slowed to a stop.

“Cahn I hep yu,” a French Canadian asked.

“Yes sir, I’m lost.”

“Wul, wur yu go-ing,” he asked, his accent got thicker as I suppressed a laugh.

“I’m trying to get into the peat plant,” I told him.

“Oh, that’s back duwn tha rood.”

“Yes sir, I know that. The problem is I missed the driveway and am trying to get turned around. Is there a place to turn around up ahead?”

“Ya, dis rood duz a T, yu cahn turn ‘round der,” he sayed with a smile, a toothless smile.
“Let me ask you something and don’t think I am too crazy. Is the road level there at the T or does it have a slope like it does back behind me?”

“Oh ya, it duz have a bit uv a sloop. Wait a minute and I will shoow yu out uv here.” His hands gestured in circles; I hoped that didn’t mean anything ominous.

The Frenchman turned around and started down the road. I followed as best I could. I don’t think he realized that I pulled a fifty-three foot trailer behind me, because he never slowed for turns or curves. The trailer dragged through the snow banks as we went around the corners, snow flying in the air looking like a fresh blizzard. It turned out to be a good thing, though. The tractor would slide a bit as I made the sharp turns on the frozen road and the trailer’s dragging would slow me down, keeping the truck from sliding off into the ditch on the other side.

After about ten minutes, we pulled into the back side of Vilna. When we came to the main road, the Frenchman pulled off to the left side of the road and I eased up on his right side. I thanked him for his assistance and offered to pay him.

“Nooo, I don’t need nu moonie. I wuz happy tu help.”

“Sir, it would have cost me ten times this amount if I had to call a wrecker. Please take this,” offering him a twenty dollar bill (American).

He took the twenty and gave me that toothless smile again, then drove off. I turned onto the highway and found my way back to the plant. As I came up to where the entrance should have been, another truck pulled out onto the highway. “So that’s where the entrance is,” I thought to myself.

It took me the rest of the night to get loaded and the trailer set to the proper specs for travel. When I pulled out of the plant the next morning, the little blue sign was clearly visible, right up against the fence.

Two days, and no shower, later, I sat in Denver waiting to be unloaded.

July 05, 2006

The Surly Visitor from the Swamp

A fishing trip to the swamps of east Texas, with my grandfather and younger brother, took an interesting twist when a denizen of the swamps decided to join us. Pop, my grandfather, has since passed on, but the mere glance of a swamp or marsh sends wonderful memories flooding back.

Darkness emerges in the late afternoon. The Cypress trees tower above the small boat while their knobs beat its underside. Snakebirds leap from their perches as we neared; their long wings beat out a slow rhythm while they ascend through the clustered branches.

Ahead, a small clearing bathed in sunlight. Across the way, an alligator is laying in wait on the muddy bank; lurking in the shadow, patiently. We maneuver to the edge of the clearing and tie off to the lower branches. All around us, yo-yos and trotlines attest to the fertile fishing in the swamps of Horseshoe Lake; their beaten condition, a testament to our friend on the bank.

Near the front of the boat, Matt and Pop set their corks and hooks with minnows to catch the abundant crappie in these murky waters. Meanwhile, I set a lure on my line to test the waters in the clearing.

GROAN… We cast a wary eye to the shoreline.

A few casts in the sun’s spotlight produce no rewards, while Matt brings in the first catch of the evening. As he resets his hook, the crappie flops about on the floor of the flat bottom boat. The hollow thunk against the boat shell being hit echoes through the swamp. Matt’s metallic grin taunts me. Pop flashes a toothless, understanding smile.

Soon, Pop’s attention turns to his line. His cork bobs. There it goes. Running, running, then, ploop, under the water. He jerks; the hook is set. Pop pulls to the right as he reels in the crappie. The fish struggles to reach the Cypress knobs: freedom. It has no chance as the line grows ever shorter. Pop lifts him out of the water. He’s at least two and half pounds, maybe three. I quickly change from lure to cork and hook.

Hisss. A stirring of the water. I look and the gator is gone. Pop sees this, too. Ever cautious, he pulls an oar up close and I comfort myself by doing the same.

As the sun starts to set, our spotlight in the clearing fades. At first, the lights on the boat do little more than cast a dim reflection on the water. As the swamp grows darker, the boatlight appears stronger. The bullfrogs start their deep croaking. Swarms of moths and mosquitoes attack the illumination. Their bodies, seared from the heat or stunned from their suicidal head butts, fall gently on the reflective pool of the light’s glow on the water.

The bugs struggling on the water attract more fish. Some swim close enough to catch by hand. I am tempted to try, but my friend from the bank is out there, somewhere.

By now, we have caught ten or fifteen crappie and one catfish. He’ll make a good breakfast. SLAP! Pop kills one of the mosquitoes. Thousands are left. We empty a can of OFF®, but it does little to stem the tide.

Noises in the shadows gather our attention. A splash, followed by the screech of a snakebird. Matt’s eyes are wide and intent, trying to focus in the direction of the noise. Pop gives a tired look and a frown. My eyes have trouble focusing on the dark with the rear boatlight just to my side.

Bump. The boat gently rocks. I turn as Pop reaches out and whacks the alligator on the head with his oar. The gator violently swims away. Its tail churns the water in a torrent. Water sloshes against the trees and the boat. Slowly, he fades from sight. None of us breathe during the entire event.

It seems as though eons pass before the fish start biting again. Even then, they bite slowly, tentatively, as if something were watching them, waiting for the crappie to make a wrong move. In the boat, we share the same feeling. Our eyes jump in constant motion from our corks to the darkness. He will be back. But from where? We wait. We watch. We fish. Soon, the tension turns to calm. Maybe once was enough. One by one, we relax. Pop tells stories of fishing, in a hushed voice, with his brothers and grandfather. We forget about Him.

BUMP! This time the boat rocks violently. It moves back and forth against the cypress to which we are tied; the line tightens into a knot. Matt and Pop reel in their lines. I turn to untie the boat, my hands shaking and my line still in the water. The coarse nylon rope is stretched too tightly to untie. As I fumble around in the tackle box for the knife, he hits the boat again. He’s learned his lesson. Staying just below the water line and out of sight, the gator never surfaces. Pop shouts in a loud whisper, “Hurry!”

Success! I find the knife. Quickly, I cut the rope just as I see a bulge in the water moving toward the boat. Turning around and switching on the electric motor, I fumble for my oar with my free hand. Where is it!? My brother sits squarely in the middle of the boat firmly grasping my oar with both hands; his normally pale white skin three shades lighter in the glow of the boat lights.

As we ease out of the swamp into the lake, we hear a splash of water along the shoreline. What sounds like laughter is heard under the gator’s breath as he settles in for another night in his swamp.

Frankenstein Got Me

As the evening drew near, our anticipation grew. My best friend Ike (6 years old), his younger sister Zena (4), and I (5) knew that we would get to watch our first “scary” movie that night. My dad, Curtis, and their dad, Tom, had decided that the Saturday night movie special would be appropriate for us to get a taste of the spooky, especially for Halloween.

We all gathered in the living room of our small house for the movie. Inside the front door, a small foyer opened up into a large room divided into two separate parts – the living room to the left and the dining room straight ahead. On the other side of the living room a hallway led to the bedrooms and the bathroom. Across the dining room, a doorway led to the kitchen and the other end of the aforementioned hallway. Mom had placed one of her two couches with its back to the entry, separating the foyer and the living room. Behind that couch, we kids would hide and watch the monsters.

The old black-and-white movie began with eerie music; the pounding drums and the droning horns foretold of the dread to come. But, as the story unfolded, we found ourselves laughing at the antics of Lou Costello, as the clumsy, yet loveable receiving clerk, and his straight playing partner, Bud Abbott. A shipment had arrived that they had to deliver to a museum and, somehow, they managed to get the large crates to the museum without breaking them.

Then, the music became ominous timpani. They opened one of the crates to inspect the contents and it was Dracula’s coffin. His cold stoic face appeared to the sound of spine-chilling percussion. Abbott explained to a frightened Lou that it was only a wax copy of the vampire. Their attention then turned to the next box. Inside was Frankenstein’s monster. Again, Abbott reassured Lou that the monster, too, was wax.

As they went about breaking down the crates, Dracula awoke. He rose and warily moved into the shadows of the room.

We eased closer to the back of the couch, just barely peering around the edge to see what would come next.

Dracula touched two bolts to the monster’s neck, bringing him to life. He arose. Quietly, the monster came up behind Lou.

Aaargh!” My dad yelled as he leapt over the back of the couch, arms flailing and teeth gnashing. The sound of his yell, the clap of his shoes striking the tile at our feet, and the monster attacking in front of us scattered three kids in nine directions trying to get away.

Ten years passed before I ever saw how Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein ended. But that would not be the last of my dad’s practical jokes.

July 01, 2006

Can I Have a Towel?

"Mommy, can I have a towel?" Craig whimpered.

His hand, the floor, the door, and the doorway were covered in blood. He cried —standing there — somewhere between shock and fear, between dream and reality. His mother was nearly in hysterics; the sight of her son soaked in blood, her kitchen a strange surgical room with an oven and flowered curtains — almost too much to understand.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Saturdays were special days. The mornings spent watching the shoot-'em ups with Roy Rogers and John Wayne followed by Bugs and Daffy then Scooby Doo gave way to afternoons and playtime. In the rough and tumble world of a six year old boy, playtime meant adventure. This day’s adventure: football.

Craig had all of the gear. His dad bought him a genuine Dallas Cowboy helmet and a pair of shoulder pads. His Paw-paw gave him a Walt Garrison jersey, his favorite player. Craig’s mom took him to the shoe store weeks earlier to get a pair of cleats. He was ready to be the best football player in the world, or at least on his block.

He gathered his gear and raced to the back door. His neighbor, Ike’s, backyard, was the setting for this week’s game and all he had to do was jump the fence. Craig opened the back door and threw his gear on the back patio. He turned to shut the door and... "Eiyyyy!"

The deadbolt sliced through Craig’s pinky like hot butter. The little finger gushed blood everywhere. From the deadbolt down, the door and the door jam were covered with the red liquid already becoming sticky — thick, waiting to stain. Fresh spackled blood coated the rock patio and brick wall in all directions. The spurting blood coated his shirt and the bottom of his face. Every dog in the neighborhood howled in unison with Craig. As he pushed the door back open, it spurted onto the kitchen floor and walls. His mother came down the hallway into the kitchen. She instinctively knew something was wrong; his cries made her feel his pain before she saw his blood.

"What is it? What’s wro... Oh my God! Curtis!! Get in here now," she yelled emphatically. "Get in here, now!"

"I’m sorry, Mommy," Craig cried, his big brown eyes overflowed with tears. "I didn’t do it on purpose." A look of bewilderment on his face as if "what happened?"

She stared for a minute, stunned. All the blood, the screaming, the noise outside, it was all so hard to take in. Her son, covered in red and crying, jarred her back to reality. She dropped to her knees and looked for cuts all over him before she realized what had happened. The end of his finger was gone. Panic. Her mind raced though thoughts of the family dog biting Craig or worse.

Frantically, she looked on the floor for the finger. Craig’s dad, Curtis, came into the room, bewildered. He had been up all night fighting fires so his eyes were not totally focused. The sight of red smears on the white wall and floor changed that quickly. Mommy frantically crawled around on the floor, blood covering her pajamas, and yelled, "Where’s the finger? Oh my God, did the dog get it?"

"I’ll check," his dad said as he ran out to the doghouse.

"Mommy, can I have a towel?"

His question brought her back. She had worried about the finger and forgotten her son, momentarily. She smiled to reassure Craig that he would be alright. She went to the kitchen drawer to get some towels, glanced down and saw the finger tip just behind the kitchen door. She dampened two towels, opened one and handed it to Craig for his hand; she took the other and gently wiped the blood from his face, neck, and arms.

"I don’t think the dog has it," his dad, reentering the kitchen, said. He turned to Craig. "What happened? Are you all right?"

"I don’t know. My finger hurts."

Curtis kneeled to wrap the hand and finger gently in the towel.

"I found the finger behind the door. I’m putting it on ice now," Craig’s mom said. Curtis gently loaded Craig into the car and rushed him to the hospital. Mommy changed her clothes and took Craig’s baby brother, Matt, to their aunt’s home, before rushing to the hospital. She frantically searched the emergency room corridors for Craig and Curtis. Passing one of the doors, she heard a cheerful, "Hi, Mommy." Curtis sat beside the bed, tenderly holding Craig’s little hand. Craig seemed calm to her.

The emergency room doctor cleaned up the wound, but feared sewing the entire tip on to his finger due to the possibility of infection. When the doctor prepared to give Craig three shots to deaden the area, Craig’s mom left the room. His screams of pain were too much to bear. When she returned, the doctor was shaving the tissue away from the protruding bone. He took a graft of skin from the fingertip to cover the end of the finger nub. Slowly and methodically, he sewed the graft on to the tiny finger then bandaged it.

"Alright. I’ll see you tomorrow in the office. Just keep clean bandages on it tonight," the doctor said. "He should have full use of the finger, but he won’t have a fingernail."

Craig overheard what the doctor told his mom.

"Mommy, he said I won’t have a fingernail," Craig said after the doctor left.

"You don’t worry about that. You will have a fingernail," she replied in the confident tone that makes every child sure of his mother.

On the way home, Craig sat in his mom’s lap. He looked up at her, his big brown eyes not quite so teary, and asked, "Will I be able to play football later?"

Craig did play football again, and many other sports. Just not for a few weeks. But the best news occurred a year later. As his mother had told him, Craig re-grew his fingernail. Mommy is always right.

Adventures in Firefighting

The call came in just after one that Saturday afternoon. The Johnson rent house on Old Whitney road was on fire. As a volunteer with the Peoria Volunteer Fire Department, I was not required to be at every fire, but I couldn’t resist. I had a little firefighting bug from way back.

During my childhood, my Dad would take me to work with him. He worked for the Houston Fire Department and his station, Station 14, sat on the corner of 12th and Yale, in the old Heights section of town. Moss filled oaks lined the pock marked streets and filled the expansive yards of the old, rundown mansions throughout the area. The fire house was early 20th century with ornate carvings on the corners. Three big bay doors stayed open during the day, allowing the aroma from the burger, taco and chicken stands to drift through the station. The local shop owners, in their 1960s version of strip centers, knew each fireman and were generous to their kids when they came by.

In the rear of the house, the office, living room, and kitchen served as the day quarters for the firemen on duty. The well worn, low set couches and mold covered paneling spoke of a male atmosphere. The dining area doubled as a game room; besides car repairs, dominos and card games took up a lot of free time. Most of the guys would take the time to show us kids how to play the different games.

Behind the firehouse a large wooden rack, twenty feet long and eight feet wide, stood in a downhill slant in order to lay the hoses out to dry after a fire. The guys taught me how to properly roll out the hoses to prevent rotting and how to roll them back up for storage. Once that was completed, and a few other chores like truck maintenance and cleaning were done, we would always play a round of horseshoes or pitch washers.

The real fun was upstairs. Along the back wall, all of the bunks were lined up neatly – a wall locker for personal effects stationed beside each bunk. In the front of the room were the bathrooms, showers, and more lockers. But in the middle of the room stood two mahogany pool tables, a ping pong table, an air hockey table and an eight foot by eight foot closet.

The pool tables were beautiful; the imitation pearl trim and markers looked real to us kids. While playing, I would imagine that I was playing on the King of England’s pool table; only a king would have such exquisite tables. The ping pong tables were rather ordinary in comparison, but one side could be stood on end and I could play by myself for hours.

The closet, just beyond the tables, was extra special. Through that closet door stood the prize every kid dreamed about when they thought of firefighting — the Pole. I became the pole sliding champion of Houston. If they held a pole sliding event at the Olympics, the gold medal would be mine. Even when just stopping by the station for a minute with Mom, I had to slide down that pole.

When I got older, Dad would occasionally let me ride to a fire in the chief’s car. I had to stay with the car while at the scene, but the sights I saw at those fires still fascinate me. Firemen coming out of burning buildings holding children or pets, cars mangled by trains at major crossroads, or even the occasional use of the Jaws of Life had the mind of this youngster working overtime.

I arrived at the fire before any of the trucks, so I threw on my gear that was stored behind the seat of my El Camino and started to reconnoiter the area. The rental home was an old wood frame house with a small porch; it sat in the middle of an acre plot that was surrounded by a pasture on one side and cotton fields on the other and behind. There was a small Mulberry bush near the front door and a large White Oak tree just to the side of the back door, a few other trees dotted the yard and driveway. Twenty yards away, an old Ford pickup truck sat on blocks and a barbed wire fence lined the perimeter. A propane tank was situated on the side of the house. It appeared the only thing home was the renter’s Blue Healer dog. He sat trembling by the fence and growled when I tried to catch him. I did not want him running around when everyone arrived, for his safety and the firefighters.

The Hillsboro fire trucks showed up first. They set up near the front of the house. The pumper-truck, fully loaded with treated water, was bright and shiny; the pump motors started on the first try. Our pump motor usually took a little priming before it would start. Hillsboro aimed one hose at the propane tank to keep it cool and another targeted the front roof.

Before they finished setting up, the Peoria fire wagon ambled into the yard. I motioned them to the rear of the house. The rental was fully engulfed in flame and would require an all out assault from the front and rear if anything was to be salvaged. Charlie, a retired air force firefighter, and I rolled out the first hose and went to the back door. The door provided an excellent view inside the home; the bottom half was wood, but the top half was glass. Using the nozzle, I broke the glass and sprayed water into the back room in a counter-clockwise motion to arrest the flame and smoke long enough to see what we were up against.

I could see through the back room into the kitchen. It looked like a clear path, so we stepped back so I could kick in the locked door. My foot broke through the rotted wood, leaving me straddling the splintered wood with one foot inside the burning structure and one outside on the wet, slippery steps. I tried to calm down and assess the situation. Then, I noticed an acetylene bottle in the corner of the room. Wrapped around the bottle were two tires, fully engulfed in flames.

"Get me out of here, NOW," I yelled back at Charlie.

Without hesitating, Charlie turned the nozzle lever off and threw his arms under mine. He pulled and tugged, finally releasing me from my precarious predicament. We both fell into a pool of water that was beginning to puddle up near the base of the White Oak. The cool splash soothed my overheated face; the muddy water left dirty streaks down the front of my protective visor.

Instead of entering the house, we set up a hose to spray directly on the bottle of pressurized gas. If it were to explode, there would be a lot of injured firemen leave the scene that day.

Hillsboro stabilized the front of the house enough to send two guys to the rear to assist us. They took a hose to the side window, directly under the White Oak, and worked on knocking back the flames from that angle. One of the firemen, Gus, dropped his section of hose and started spinning; his arms were flailing about like a mad man. At first, I thought an ember had gotten under his fire retardant jacket. Then I saw the snake wrapped across his shoulders. The four foot chicken snake had fallen from the tree, dead from the smoke. All Gus knew was that it was a snake and it was on him. He didn’t wait around to see if it was dead or a live.

The snake incident so stunned Gus that he walked over to the fence to gather himself. As he leaned on a post, a swarm of ground hornets attacked him. With his arms flailing about again, he took off across the yard towards the cab of our truck. In all of the excitement, the Blue Healer joined in the chase. I don’t believe Gus ever left the Hillsboro city limits to fight another fire.

After about an hour, we extinguished the fire. Three quarters of the house had burned to cinders, but we were able to salvage some of the renter’s personal effects. He arrived on the scene as we were cleaning up. The shock on his face quickly vanished when he saw his dog.

I never heard what caused the fire. I did learn that the acetylene bottle was empty and open, so it posed no risk. It just scared the devil out of us. The owner leased another of his rent houses at a lower rate to the man to help him get back on his feet. Occasionally, I talk to some of my friends from that little department; we always end up talking about that fire. Because no one was hurt, we can have a good laugh about Gus and his adventures.