From the edge of the swamp

Location: marengo, il, United States

Monday, January 31, 2005

A Lady Named Sam

Nearly all the neighbors admired Sam for being adventuresome. Some might have claimed the spirited lady was nothing but a headstrong maverick or a bit crazy, but as most of us knew, she treated friend and stranger with both respect and fairness. We were all equal in her eyes, she always said.

She will admit to being fiercely independent, being raised as a pioneer sort, so Sam is opinionated to a fault, but the wealthy woman has always worked hard and has more inventive ideas than anyone else on the planet. She also shows a great sense of humor, and she laughs at herself a lot.

She is not shy at all.

But now the complex lady finds herself in some serious trouble with a few critics. Several self-important detractors have recently called her past into question. Serious charges have been made against her deeds and actions. There are even those that say the very core of her character is not just flawed and misguided, but led by dark and evil intentions. These people are very, very angry with Sam.

Where this will all lead I cannot begin to imagine, but I must stand by her.

Sam goes out of her way to aid the less-fortunate. I have seen her carry food to hungry neighbors. I have watched her deliver clothes to those without, and I know she hires and sends able builders to some that have lost a home, due to fire or flood. She has a good heart, this woman.

You may think I speak as one familiar with Sam, for that I am. And because of that, I love her dearly. Yet there are things about the old gal that I fail to grasp. But even still, I know that as I matured, I tried showing respect for her various and numerous beliefs. And she never failed to treat me better than I deserved.

I have watched her over the years be stern with a few that I thought merited a more unkind fate, but I figured she had a right to do what she wanted, knowing how humane and just she is. I have to believe that no matter what the outcome, I will always hold her dear in this simple heart of mine.

She came from what should be described as humble beginnings. In fact, her unique origins are a bit vague and somewhat arguable, to my way of thinking. I picture some of her relatives from the past as people one might associate with ignoble gamblers or wretched criminals, from the stories I heard as a child. I don’t mean to say they were insignificant or negligible in some critical sense, for one has to admit their daring and fool-hardy acts certainly brought a new manner of thinking to bear to all of us. That affect is still felt, even to this day.

Sam loved her father passionately. I suspect he was never as saintly as she often claims, but I do give George W. credit for being both clever and responsible. He set events in motion that clearly enabled Sam and her offspring to prosper, and she never forgot this.

She went all out when it came to remembering occasions. The rest of us fell right in behind her, inspired to follow her exuberance. There were times when we got dressed up in the silliest of costumes and took to the streets, just for the fun of it. Who doesn’t love a parade?

Some accomplished neighbor has a birthday coming up? Sam gives us a day off from work to celebrate.

If a man or a woman found a novel way of doing things, or they discovered something that had never been seen before, why, that would qualify as a proper reason to throw a party.

I personally think it prompted some folk to go searching for new ideas, but I admit to attending several of these functions anyway.

Yes, and some that live across town are now grumbling about Sam and her lavish ways. I wish it weren’t so, but it’s true. They are unhappy, and they are hostile neighbors. They openly dislike her immensely, and all that she represents.

We have caught several trying to break in to her home, and they have admitted this brazen act publicly. They have intentions to destroy her, and brag shamelessly of this. They wish to kill Sam and all of us.

These are the have-nots and the do little but complain people, as far as I can tell. I don’t see them in any good light at all. They are dangerous, I know. They are serious, too. They may try, and they might succeed in the end.

But I will stand with Sam, by jingo. She has been a good uncle, so she deserves my support.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Soggy Disposition

Just stepped out
In the dark in the rain
Over by an evergreen tree

All alone
In the dark I wait
Just the bush, that rain and me

A pause
And I shiver as a car rolls by.
It’s too far away to see.

The shadow
Of the bush hides me well
I sense werewolfery

For mid-November
It seems surreal

Like a London night
It makes me feel

Those cold raindrops
Have a certain appeal

And I begin to pee

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


I heard the road grader coming, so I dropped everything and ran to greet it. As I waited barefoot on the side of the road, the yellow-framed behemoth came slowly cruising into view. A lone figure, dressed in striped overalls, stood upright at its helm. From a tall pipe, tiny puffs of black smoke shot repetitively into the sky, leaving a sooty wake hanging in the air.

The gentleman guiding this outlandish contraption had both hands gripped firm to a large steering wheel. A stub of a cigar jutted out from one side of a tight-clamped mouth, and his head turned from side to front, inspecting while he piloted his ship. His grizzled face put me in mind of a Long John Silver.

He nodded casually as the vessel glided by my post. The angled plow blade under his machine sliced deep into the rutted road as I waved back, and it sent an endless cascade of dirt to one side while leaving a track of smoothed sand behind the tractor.

He went by the name of Coon Sapp, and the man held the honorable title of Commissioner of Roads for our county. In a few minutes he and his wonderful machine chugged off into the far distance, and only after he turned the bend and disappeared did I return to the millhouse.

He and his wife lived up the road in a simple frame shack of a house. They had lots of small children and several loose farm animals, so their dirt yard was filled with both. The house sat high off the red earth on brick footings, and it was common to see pigs, chickens, dogs or a kid up under its shade, rooting, scratching, sleeping or playing.

A rumor began to circulate that a set of twin boys had been born to the couple, and that the parents were at a loss for acceptable names. Several days passed by as this dilemma stewed. A neighbor woman soon came up with a suggestion that solved the problem. She proposed the melodic names of Larry and Jitus.

Not many children have that distinction of being named after a throat ailment, to my knowledge.


I want to live where the sugarcane grows
And feel hot sand between my toes
Swing in a hammock while soaking up rain
And not wear many clothes

Rearrange clocks differently to evening time
Drink chilled beers with tinge of lime
View slowed-down passages of haloed moons
And never need a dime

A desire for a lengthy stretch of beach
Bowls filled with fruit within my reach
A very small band of students near
For lazy I can teach

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Fishy Deal

Any amateur can paint a house. The evidence of this can be found in most any paint store. One will see it often standing around in some hardware store, looking lost. Occasionally, the spattered proof makes a sudden show at the local emergency room.

If you are able to walk, and if you have mastered most of your breathing skills, then you are more than qualified to undertake this task. So says the paint store owner and the hardware man.

Nurses and doctors, however, may not willingly testify on my behalf, since I avoid them and their council, but I do watch the television a lot.

Visiting one of these paint stores, I had bent down next to a shelf to search among a stack of smaller cans, looking for my particular brand of spar varnish, when I overheard a young clerk standing nearby take on the role of an expert. He had captured a valiant greenhorn, summoned here by welled-up desires to control his visual surroundings, or perhaps sent head-long into the pits of Hell by a good-intentioned wife. The customer looked puzzled.

He clutched a fuzzy white paint sleeve in one hand and a paint chart in the other, while a list of what had to be other needful things jutted from his shirt pocket. He held up the short-nap roller and innocently asked,

“How many of these should I get?”

The clerk responded,

“And what will you be painting, sir?”

No telling expression of moving heavy furniture or removing costly drapes and valuable lamps once crossed the patron’s brow, nor did taking off numerous switch plates, masking wood trim or fighting cheap plastic drop cloths ever occur to him. At this stage, not even thoughts of murder would dissuade him or his mad mission.

The clerk stood silent, holding his rod at the ready. I relaxed and waited while the client deliberated.

“I have to do the ceiling, which is white. But the walls will be a pale shade of yellow.”

The clerk looked impressed. He carefully pulled the line taunt.

“That’s two colors, right?”

The customer affirmed his suspicion with a nod.

“Then that means two coats per color.”

He reeled fast without hesitating.

The tenderfoot took another look at the costly roller sleeve.

“Then give me three more of these.”

I walked on past the young clerk and his fresh catch as it flopped about happily on the bank. Stopping to pick out one cheap and long-napped roller sleeve, I paid and left the store.

It’s too bad, I thought, that some fish cannot be prominently mounted on a wall.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Exotic Fantasy Flower

I looked up as I walked by, and saw the wilted plant. How forgetful of me. It hadn’t been watered for more than three months. I concluded from this oversight, after seeing the condition of a lone blossom, that the beautiful thing had died. The large delicate petals had begun to fold inward and wither.

Carefully taking the pot in one hand while draping the near-lifeless vine across an arm, I rushed the thing to the kitchen table, wondering why I stored it on top of our white refrigerator in the first place. Sunlight never reaches there, but I didn’t dwell on that.

First I fetched the watering jug. A quick shot into the container, and then a brown liquid swirled around inside, kicking up a miniature but brief wet dust storm. I sat for a minute to watch it settle. Then pinching the slender stalk gently and lifting the plant, I examined its roots.

Matted together, the mossy wetness looked healthy enough, but then to my sudden surprise, I noticed the flower had already unfurled. Four inches across, its lavender face lifted and stared up at me indignantly. I immediately knew what it wanted, so I replaced the roots back into the water with great hope.

But once more the water swirled, becoming opaque and brown. Now wait a second, I thought. What’s going on here? I leaned closer as silt fell to the bottom, and waited for the water to turn clear again.

Then I saw them.

Three tiny creatures appeared to be running in circles, moving with the flow of enclosed liquid. A larger one clung to the side, just above the waterline. I removed it with a finger and held him close to my face for inspection. From his unique marking I recognized the larval stage of the Japanese Aquatic Dancing Wilt, a ferocious foe of the Exotic Fantasy Flower, so I killed him.

After dropping his squashed carcass in the garbage, I turned around. Silly plant. It had left its container. I saw it crawling slowly up the wall, heading desperately for light streaming from a near-by window. I captured the vine quickly and inserted the roots back into the container.

Again the water swirled. I planned on dealing with them later, but first to the needs of my baby.

One high and recessed window looked safe for the plant. While standing on a chair and coaxing things into place, the wife walked in holding my son’s hand.

“He lied to his teacher today.”

“I’m having troubles with this plant, dear.”

“But he lied.”

“Fine. Send him to the den and let him get on the computer. Have him type out an apology.”

While he busied himself, I recounted to her the latest news, during which she suggested I go and check our son’s progress.

Putting the tale on hold, I walked past the refrigerator and into the den.

I knew in an instant something was wrong. On the desk sat the industrial-looking startup monitor. The regular one was gone. So was the tower and the keyboard. The desk looked bare except for the cockeyed minute metal box facing me. When I turned around and saw the up-turned table and the scattered and emptied drawers, my suspicions that we had been robbed during the brief conversation were confirmed.

And then the shock of it all woke me up.

Saturday, January 22, 2005


I found this fancy vehicle sitting unattended, so I took off driving the puppy like a crazy person. But I don’t know the first thing about the internal workings of the beast.

The tank stays full, which is a total mystery after many miles. I do know where the dashboard is located. I can easily turn the key where it says Create a New Post. The machine fires right up, and it steers good, and pretty much on it’s own, it seems.

But I see extra slots and plugs that leave me befuddled. And I know my history -- stick something in there, bud, and watch sparks fly. If you live.

I cannot locate the odometer, nor a device to count or weigh any sort of cargo. I don’t know exactly where the headlights are either, so I drive in the dark a lot, and pray. I tried stopping by a sign painters once, but the brakes failed to work (hello and so long, simple sign man).

Oh, well. No worries. I do have a little paint and a few extra brushes I keep in the trunk. Let people ogle while I work it out; I don’t care:

Likable Links

Chatroom Typos

I don’t give out my location because I have faith in God. (Unknown Chatter)
I make enemies just by pooping into the rooms. (Swirling Mist)
I really lick you a lot. (Wayfareingstranger)
I don't accept Satan's trucks in here (One Blessed Dude)
BRB in one sex (Oftenignored Hardly4gotten)
Wanna bed, Jared? (Coombie)
Hops daintily over to Red and gives her a warm n furry lion jug (Lion)
Wrong, b/c religion condoms beating but the people around are the one's who condole it (Amouna)
Del, that one is just as bad as saying he washed away our sins and made as white as snot. (NZBomb)
I sing old Mexican balds (High Mountain Air)
Just how is everyone’s genetal mood today? (Instrument)
A tasty dish when one is in a furry (Swamprat)
When I use my cock pot, it goes on the floor (Actress)
Megan your lanuage has deteriorated since I left (Redeemed and Blessed) (R&B made the list twice! See # 6)
I hate cold weather. I gets kinda niply. (Bethmarie)
He brought tit up, not us (Actress)
Do you consider bombosexuality to be a sin? (Ljmanna)
He couldn't be any worse at tit than Tony is (Megamolly)
It’s actually mice out. (Fillipians)
Vamps graved us with his presence last evening as well. (Sparks)
Lust kidding (Lakota)

Friday, January 21, 2005

Life in the Desert

No one ever knew her real name. She went simply by Big E, and everybody called her that. A regular at the all-night diner where the band hung out after gigs, her rasping voice rose far above the usual racket. The place seemed to thrive whenever Big E was around.

A rowdy “Ain’t that a wig?” coming from the blonde’s garishly painted lips would send all around her into fits of convulsive laughter.

Taking up two of the stools at the crowded counter, Big E always held her court until the wee hours of the morning.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

A Maryland Man

Old Jim shuffled slow whenever he walked. The gent played one mean harp, too. He broke it out often, and a scuffed black-shoed foot would start tapping out a steady beat while he “marked a train”, as he called it. You could close your eyes and almost taste the thing wailing somewhere off in the distance. He could mock the sounds well.

Mom Bell graciously had allowed my bride and our new-born a bedroom for free while we waited for our name to move up the long housing list. Situated in the outlying suburbs of Washington, D.C., the spacious ranch in the forest offered plenty of space for us all. Jim had his own private quarters in a smaller house out back where I’d sit and feed logs into his wood stove while he played me a song.

He had came to live with her and her husband as a young boy, she said. They found him wandering the streets one day, dazed and bleeding from a bad head injury. Mom Bell dressed his wounds while her husband sought out his kin. She explained to us that none were ever found, so they took to looking after him as an unofficial adopted child. Recently widowed, she still took care of old Jim.

Uneducated as he was, he helped her around the house with light chores in exchange for room and board. It was a fair deal. He didn’t seem to mind the situation, nor did the odd relationship seem all that unusual to us, after awhile. The old fellow simply needed her.

The first time he met our infant, he approached the boy with both caution and wonder. After tickling his tiny chin once, he looked up at us with a set of watery eyes and declared,

“Looks jus’ like a little human, don’t he.”

Jim lived in his own world. Mom told us she had caught him far from the house one day, walking down the side of the road. She pulled over and opened the passenger door to yell at him.

“Jim! What are you doing out here?”

“I’m going in to see Franklin, Miz Bell.” And he smiled toothlessly at the woman.

“Jim, get in the car right this minute.”

He got in and they drove back home.

“How do you know where Franklin lives anyway, Jim?”

Mom already knew that Franklin lived twenty-five miles away, in downtown D.C.

“Oh, he got him a blue Buick parked out front his place, Miz Bell. I’d knows it anywhere.”

Mom Bell stayed busy helping poor folk. She rose early, and if she wasn’t showing me how to re-upholster an old couch to donate, she was off on another of a thousand errands. She always left with a cheery reminder for Jim.

“Don’t forget to water my flowers.”

While my wife prepared a bottle on the stove, Jim dragged his feet around the house, carrying a watering pitcher and grumbling to himself.

“Water dem flowers. Water dem flowers. Das all I got time to do is water dat lady's damn flowers.”

He held serious conversations with everything around him, including objects. I passed through the kitchen just as he dropped a fork while he did dishes.

“Show! You jus jump right out my hand like you supposed to. I won‘t argue with dat.”

I don’t think he ever saw me, either coming or going.

Jim would answer the phone if no one else was around. Mom walked in the kitchen with an arm full of groceries and found a note laying on her counter. The wife and I had gotten home just prior. She sat her bags down while I stirred sugar into a fresh cup of coffee, and then she picked up the note and studied it. She had a quizzical look on her face when Jim came in the back door. Mom Bell waved the note at him.

“Jim. What is this?”

“Oh, some lady, she calls for you.” He went to the sink to fill a glass with water.

She placed the note on the table next to my cup of coffee, and then went to stocking cabinets. But she grinned at me.

“Who was she, Jim?”

“I doan recall jess who she was, Miz Bell. Thas why I took and wrote it down, for you.”

She picked the slip of paper back up. On it were several squiggly lines, like waves.

“Well, what does it say, Jim?”

Old Jim acted insulted at her question as he carefully rinsed his glass.

“Don if I knows. I doan read no writin’.”

We finally got our phone call. Our new apartment awaited us. A week later, I had a friend drive me back to Mom’s house to help load a couch.

The two of us arrived at dark. No car in the driveway. I had Paul back his truck in, and then he and I went around to the rear of the house. I never mentioned Jim, figuring he was asleep anyway. And I knew Mom wouldn’t mind if I let us in through her unlocked basement door.

After pushing the door open, I switched on the lights. We got halfway across the room when a lone figure on my couch raised up from under a blanket . Paul nearly had a stroke.

Later, on the way home, my still-astonished pal told me,

“I just never expected to see a Negro living in her basement.”

Lady of Baghdad

You huddle in your hallway, in the frightful gloom of midnight. The ground outside shakes once. The walls of your house rattle. You hear the sounds of broken glass coming from the next room, and as the floor beneath your feet reverberate, the grandmother paces, and she wails.

She curses the Americans.

Fear is in the air, thick as smoke, and bitter-tasting. The sounds of muffled explosions draw closer. The children begin to whimper. The lights, dimmed earlier by a lack of fuel, cannot help to dispel the frightening darkness that has enveloped your very soul.

I put aside my patriotic pride of my own country, and I huddle closer. Our bodies both feel rigid. I sense a momentary compassion for you, and for your loved ones. I can undergo your terror. Then I experience the hatred and hostility you hold toward the invader of your beloved homeland. And then I remember.

I remember the little four-year-old child that died in a Chicago fire last night, half a world away. Her young mother perished at her side. Then I recall the tens of thousands that drowned in the region of Aceh on Box Day. Thoughts of suffering are on everyone’s mind these days.

I have been silent, but I remember.

Suddenly, the harsh words of Wisdom cry out to my soul. She wails from the busy streets, warning all of those who desperately need to hear her stern voice. She is relentless with her cruel cautions. Take heed! Take heed, she cries.

And then she promises to laugh in your hour of calamity. But who listens to this mad woman?

You are just as I, sweet lady of Baghdad. You are but human.

You seek comfort for you family. You love them as best you can. You provide for their needs. And you lash out at this indignity.

For that, I cannot fault you. But then I remember.

I remember the mobs that celebrated a recent victory while a dead American was dragged through the public streets. It only reminds me of man’s inhumanity to man.

And then I remember why he was there in the first place; to help.

I remember, with revulsion, Blackhawk Down. More of the same.

I remember how Americans are despised, and I wonder about cruelty.

I am sorry for you, lady of torn Baghdad. I really am. Yet still, my compassion has been tempered with the harsher reality of wisdom. Part of me wants to reach and hold you close, to protect you and all that you love; all that you hold dearly.

Yet another more-sober part wants to cry in your face.

Why did you not pay attention, woman? Why did you not stand and be counted? Why did you allow this? Why did you allow your leaders to bully you and your family into submission? Was it from fear? Or did you shrug your shoulders and comply?

I, for one, have no such fear. I am lucky, I suppose, being born in a free land and at this particular time of history. It was not always so here; we have certainly had our moments.

But I refuse to accept the blame for those that suffer so, without thinking thusly.

I truly wish we could get along. But we are, after all, human, my lady.

And mean Wisdom, she tells me she means business. You can read her short story in the Bible, in Proverbs. It can be found in chapter one.

Read the story, I beg of you, precious lady. Read it before the lights go out permanently.

Finger-pickers are Taking Over the World

I grabbed my 14 yo by the hand, shoved him in the car, and then headed for Elburn, Illinois at break-neck speed. Eli complained the whole way. Then, along about the third song, and while the entire crowd stood and cheered, I glanced over at him. "I got goose-bumps, dad," Was all he said.

Hot damn, he was hooked!

After that, we stood in line for auties. The boy near embarrassed me saying, "I want Tommy to sign this," And he held up his ticket stub for the long line of fans to see. "Backwards!" Lord have mercy. Then busy Tommy Emmanuel stopped what he was doing and looked up at him like the boy was indeed nuts, until I leaned over and confided, "He's a musician too." Well, TE just grinned at that info. Then he sat and struggled his way through, and produced what I believe to be the only backward signature on the planet of the Awesome Aussie.

We’ve not maintained contact since his Elburn concert, but Tommy’s acts of generosity still live and thrive here. Eli finished a year of baritone before switching to his now-favorite instrument, the violin. I never once pushed him to guitar. Let him follow his heart, I say. I did warn him recently about his voice, however, and his screaming the words, but the boy is young yet.

What gets me is his friends. They stop by to practice down in the basement. One drags in a bass and amp. One carries a set of sticks. Dreadlocks, spiked hair and plenty of “tude” accompanies their dream. Band names change with each and every set.

But first, they have to pass by the Yamaha SA 2100 on the way downstairs. It rests in its stand, always ready to go.

“Play us a song, Mr. Tippins. And do that one by Tommy.”

And then they stand and marvel as a drop-D chime begins Those Who Wait. They gawk at Chet’s version of Windy and Warm. And they stand and listen to stories of that night, and of a young boy in Melbourne getting his first guitar with no amp, and of an impromptu chest-of-drawers amplifier.

And they grin hungrily as they trudge on down the stairs.

God bless ya, mate. You helped me to bridge the gap, and I so appreciate that.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Gay Rodge

(Down at the Gay Rodge…Where nameless hooligans take your money in exchange for peering under the hood and going, "Say, this looks awful critical, bud. You have a good health-care plan along with a secure stock portfolio?")

Monday arrives early here. I rouse myself at seven because Dean the janitor had promised to come over from school and help jump-start my van. But after he hooks up the cables he wanders off and leaves Ali to rev her car while I sit behind the wheel of mine sipping a cup of hot coffee.

After five minutes or so I cranked my engine and the thing fires right up. Amazingly it still runs. Then as soon as she removes the jumper cables it dies. So we give up when the third try fails. Battery must be totally shot.

She suggests I call Towman.

He and his flatbed truck arrive shortly. Homer looks the situation over, spits and scratches.

First thing he points out is that my license plate tag has expired.

I allow he has good eyes and a handy tow truck. That idea has to jell for him while he looks over my lawn.

“Don’t want to mess up your yard with this truck,” He declares, so Rube and I lean and push the van out of its winter ruts and onto the lawn so he can back up next to it from the gravel drive. I stand aside to catch my breath. Bartholomew then starts to nose his vehicle back and forth until the rear platform slides up under old Rust Bucket’s backside.

He gets out, comes back to hooks up his winch, and then winds away.

Jake then tells me it will be fifty dollars for his tow truck, plus five dollars to recharge the battery and a half-hour's fee on a diagnostic he plans to run “back at the gay rodge”.

And he'll call in a half-hour to "let me know what".

Fair enough, says I.

Then Slim, his truck and my van drive off, barely missing my washtub planter filled with robust prairie weeds. I go inside the house to wait for bad news.

I wait. And I wait. Two hours pass. I grow tired, so I go nap.

As soon as I get up I resume waiting again. I practice this specialized occupation with the best of them, too. While ambling around the house I stumble across another short nap.

Later on I get off the couch and say to the wife, “You should call them up. Find out what the heck is going on.”

She snaps back, “Do I look like a detective? You call them.” So I call them.

That helped a lot, information-wise. After three rings Earl, or Goober, or whomever answers the telephone down there says,


I speak into the mouthpiece (wondering if I have reached Woodrow’s garage and not the White House, or some far-off bakery in China)

"Is my van ready yet?"

After a long pause Jed replies, “Lemme find out.” So I wait while he goes to see.

Then he comes back and tells me that the battery is still charging, but the alternator is kaput. This is great. His high interest in my case says the boys down there haven’t figured out how to use a phone to determine how much a new one will cost, so I thank him, hang up and dial the number for Napa, where auto parts are kept.

A laid-back but well-informed professional gives me the scoop right off, so with joy in my heart I go to test a third nap.

Clive, or Coon or some extraterrestrial calls the wife during my absence to tell her repairs will be less than three hundred bucks, and that the job may even be ready today.

This incredible news makes me suspect unmistakable aliens lurk inside the shop, preparing for an invasion, probably. His confidence shakes me. Just how does he know that for sure?

Ford Aerostar vans...from those I have seen alien things, for alien mechanics surely designed them.

While recovering from all these naps, I get another phone call. I have to assume Eugene solved the mystery of modern communication, but I make no inquiries into this – he has fresh news for me.

“You ought to replace them two belts.” He says. “They are both shot.”

Yeah. This takes me down a road right away.

I get a bright idea of two slugs I’d like to shoot myself, but first they need to fix this van of mine.

I let the best ideas go to waste, sometimes. But I don’t dicker with the man. He knows what he is doing. I sure don’t. Yes, I admit to being dicker-less in this situation. Go ahead, I tell him. Replace the belts.

“By the way,” He starts.

Now what is it, I think.

“Did you know your tag expired?”

I recall the time my daddy taught me to count to ten.

“Look,” I replied, at number seven. “Call me when you all finish, then me and the wife will drop by. What time do you close?”

I got him there, I think. My clock up on the wall shows five forty-five.

“Six,” He says it so fast it throws me, so I sputter out thanks and hang up the receiver.

The kilbasa and cabbage along with green beans and scalloped potatoes vanish precipitately, and within minutes Alicia and I skid to a stop in front of Merle’s Motor Works. A man wearing mechanics blues wipes his hands on a greasy shop rag for a formal greeting.

As soon as we step out of Alicia’s car he motions the rag toward my van’s rear end and informs us both.

“That thing there needs a new tag. The one you got done expired.”

Interesting stuff always happens here in Hoohooville.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Howler

My innocent peace shattered with the howling of an ungodly beast. At once I realized the meaning of terror. Some sort of monster had broken into the stillness of my day with an explosive and thundering roar. And the thing caught me completely off-guard.

I turned around to look. There I saw a unfamiliar shape heading straight for me. It slid and bellowed and shrieked as it came.

I unwittingly froze, and my gaze locked fast.

The creature slinked across the room, crying louder as it crept. My knees began to shake. The thing jerked once, and then it paused. It sat still, watching me as it continued to wail.

There was nothing I could do but look on in fright. Before I could think to run, the beast started at me again.

It came gliding across a polished hardwood floor, yelling madly. It clambered over a large hooked rug where it halted again for a moment before resuming its steady pace in my direction.

The distance between us shrank. The deadly noise wore out my senses. It caused any reason I possessed to vanish. It had almost reached me.

I wanted to dash away, to escape, but both legs went limp and refused to obey.

I tried taking a shaky step or two backwards, but something there blocked my path. With an outstretched hand I felt a nearby couch touching my legs, so I turned around and scrambled up on its back. I climbed in desperation, but even then I knew I had become trapped.

There was no other place to go.

My stomach went weak as I turned to face the fury of this unknown savage.

I recall screaming.

Outside in a sunlit back yard, cicadas buzzed loudly in the distance while the wind played gently in the tops of tall pine trees. Several goats chewed contentedly on lush grasses in the yard below. Bells around their necks signaled every move as they ate their way lazily about the lot. In that mid-summer of 1945 the goats had no thoughts on a war that raged half a world away. And they paid no attention to my plight either.

Back inside the two-story brick house, I sat at the top of the couch, shaking uncontrollably.

Then another movement caught my eye. At once I recognized the form of my mother. She cheerily dragged this horrid beast through the room by its long devilish snout, and it seemed to follow after her willingly.

But the sounds that thing made still haunt me to this day.

At the age of two I had met the vacuum cleaner.

Whitemarsh Island was a peaceful private place where the affluent preferred to live. A smooth blacktop road dotted with bits of broken oyster shell snaked its way quietly among palmetto and Spanish moss-laden oak, the expensive solitude set apart from the commerce and noisy bustle of nearby Savannah. It held an atmosphere of old money, salt air and stately shade. This was my first home and my only memories.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

A Reluctant Rider

Jimmy and I considered the two hundred-dollars our instructor demanded for his 1949 Hudson. The massive automobile appeared to be in excellent shape, judging from its original deep blue paint job. We both became bedazzled by its appearance.

The interior of the car contained a not unpleasant musty odor. I climbed in the back seat where I stretched out on the plush velvet-and-leather, noting that neither feet nor head touched either side, while Jimmy inspected things from behind the driver’s wheel.

The dashboard, constructed from both exotic wood and finely etched metals, sported more than the usual amount of gauges, but the fact that the vehicle had an intriguing wet clutch, a wonder to behold, finalized our injudicious decision. This marvelous machine, we decided, would enable us two young and single Marines a fine way to escape the drudgery of office machine repair classes on weekends. Over the next six months it in fact did.

I lost the coin-toss, so Jimmy drove us back to the barracks after we shelled out a hundred apiece to the pinch-faced elder. A slight hint of a smile worked around the corners of his lips when he folded up the cash and slipped it into his pocket.

While Jimmy negotiated the winding road leading to the main highway, I ran my fingers over the wood veneer and stretched my legs in the roomy front seat. I dialed the radio to search for local stations, and then Jimmy let out a whoop. I looked up to see a stop sign looming ahead.

“Man, this thing is going to need some new brakes!” He claimed, pumping the pedal several times. I couldn’t tell if the behemoth slowed by its own weight or if the brakes themselves had an effect, but we did come to a proper stop.

That turned out to be one of many flaws we two learned to deal with over time. The wet clutch wanted frequent attention. The ancient motor constantly required oil. And from the way the car billowed smoke, we figured the engine needed new rings, but that costly repair was far out of the question.

We managed to save money by using re-claimed oil. Most gas stations in that part of southern Virginia kept a fifty-five gallon drum on hand, where they stored dregs from previous customers’ oil changes. Obtuse attendants assured us (as they dipped an oilcan below the surface) that the impurities settled to the bottom. Jimmy and I felt delighted to hear this, since the product sold for next to nothing.

Then we discovered that after filling the large tank with gas, our now-depleted funds kept us from buying other necessities, such as burgers or beer. We solved that problem too.

An ingenious device known as an Oklahoma credit card fit snugly under our front seat. A six-foot length of garden hose will come in handy when one wants free gas.

We conned compatriots from the barracks to do this chore for us. It seemed to be a fair trade, since we provided them with free transportation. One would climb back into the car, spitting gas and demanding a cold beer to clear his throat.

But locating free fuel required constant vigilance. Late one night, we spied an all-too-easy prey. In the median strip sat a line of road construction vehicles, abandoned for the day.

“Make a U-turn!” Jimmy shouted, so I did. One of the boys jumped out, hose in one hand and a can in the other. Several miles down the road later, the Hudson sputtered into a gas station. There we purchased a full tank of gas, trying to dilute the diesel fuel we had just stolen.

On a pleasant Saturday afternoon, we decided to change the worn brake shoes. The shrill sounds of grinding metal had grown worse, plus a ticket given by a humorless cop had convinced us to do so. Late into the night and half into the next day we struggled getting things put back together, and vowed never to attempt such a dumb idea again. Repairing typewriters was one thing; old cars were something else.

One ideal target that supplied us with free gas was an isolated brick building set far out in the woods. A small Air Force communications group housed airmen there. A filled parking lot behind the building lay next to a thick pine forest. We only visited late at night. Driving from the front of the unit to around back, we cruised slowly looking for personnel. We saw no one. The flat roof held various radar dishes and multiple antenna silhouetted against the night sky, but things looked quiet on the ground.

Behind the barracks we found most of the cars parked in reverse, leaving the rear ends of the vehicles extending over the curb. Jimmy found us an empty stall, backed the old Hudson into it, and then he cut the lights. We sat silent in the darkness until our eyes adjusted before a passenger took the hose and left our car.

(At some point we had obtained a large metal gas can. I am most certain no one paid for this. One of those flat, metal types that are designed for military Jeeps, it had a heavy metal screw-on lid with a short metal chain. We are now about to learn how well noise travels at night)

A grassy bank sloped away from the parking lot. Our volunteer shut his door carefully. Then he crept softly down the hill and behind the car next to us. Completely at ease, what we heard next made us all bolt upright in untarnished horror.

First, the cumbersome lid made a high-pitched squeal with each turn. Metal against metal. It reverberated off the brick building, and the noise seemed to echo without ceasing. Every turn seemed to grow louder than the last.

Sound indeed travels better in the dark, especially to those terrified of being caught.

Our pirate managed to go on regardless, but then he saw fit to drop the lid, which resounded like a gong. Someone suggested starting the car up and leaving him there, but our robber inserted the hose before we could agree. We breathed easier when he suddenly appeared at the side window. He stood there in the hushed dark, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and whispering,

“It’s going, boys.”

It would take several minutes to fill, so he squatted down between the two cars and waited. A minute later lights unexpectedly appeared near the end of the barracks. One end of the parking lot illuminated as if the sun had rose suddenly.

Did a flare just go off? Holy crap! What is that?

Everyone ducked down. Then a car came around the corner. It slowly drove toward us. Headlight beams bounced up and down, and for a moment the interior of the Hudson lit up as clear as day.

Five bodies huddled down inside our car – the one standing ducked and froze. The car crept closer and closer. Then the lights went off, and to us things got dark again. The air outside grew death-quiet as the engine shut off. We stayed still. Crickets began to chirp after a few minutes.

Then our outside man stood up slowly. A few heads raised up to look. We saw him peering over the car next to us. Then he whispered low,

“Whoever is over there hasn’t got out of their car yet.”

Several parked cars obscured the view.

“I need to go check it out. That gas is running over.”

You could hear the tension in his voice. We all felt it. We all smelled the gas, too.

He bent down low and disappeared around the tail end of our car. By now you could hear us sweat as we sat and waited. I expected to be caught any minute, but beyond the initial yelling and terrible-but-true accusations, I could only imagine what our fate might become.

Then someone from the back seat spoke up.

“Here he comes!” We all strained our necks. And here he came, confidently walking upright and striding deliberately toward us.

He leaned on the Hudson and chuckled while he shook his head.

And with that he turned to retrieve the full container. After he climbed into the back seat, can in tow, he slammed his door. And then he grinned at the group.

Some guy had brought his date here to park in private, he told us, and they are over there doing what lovers do. So at that, Jimmy laughed and fired the engine, and then we hastily escaped the place.

Jimmy and I planned a long trip for an up-coming weekend. He had relatives in Atlanta, and I had my new girlfriend in South Carolina, so we packed a clean shirt or two and left Friday after classes were over. He dropped me off at her house, took the car on down to Georgia, and then returned late Sunday night to get me, right on schedule. We left South Carolina around eleven that night, and figured to be home by five the next morning.

It began to rain hard while I drove. Half-way across the state, Jimmy spotted a wet sailor standing on the side of the road, so we slid to a stop and offered him a lift. Shivering from the cold, he seemed to be a pleasant enough fellow, and alleged he was headed for the naval base at Norfolk. No sweat, we told him. We aren’t going quite that far, but we can get you close.

The rain continued to fall as we made our way through North Carolina. Then I came up behind a slow-moving car. Feeling the need to make good time, I passed him the first chance I got.

I waited for the moment when I couldn’t see the glows of on-coming headlights through the rain up ahead.

Then on the slick two-lane highway, I swerved into the other lane and floored the old Hudson. She responded with a roar that could be heard above the torrential storm, but as I drew along side the car I realized we were both traveling up a steep hill.

But before I could think or wisely retreat, the sky at the crest of the ridge lit up, and headlights from another car appeared. With a mere split-second to react I edged over to my right, somehow avoiding smashing into the side of the slower car. And there, for the briefest of moments, three cars occupied a space designed for two.

In an instant the thing was over. I shot past the auto and returned to the proper lane.

No one had spoken a word up to this point.

No one spoke for several miles afterwards, the way I remember it.

And I wasn’t about to open my mouth first. My hands and legs shook too much.

Pretty soon the speed limit dropped as we approached some nameless town, and at the first red light, the back door popped open. Then and there our passenger announced he had made a change of plans. He decided to take an alternate route, he explained, although I knew that was unnecessary.

My father had always told me, never explain your self to your enemies for they will not believe a word you say. And your friends – well, they shouldn’t require an explanation to begin with.

Ecclesiastes Speaks

My father, when he was a young lad, came across a small ad in a magazine. The headline read "How to get rich". It would cost him a valuable 25 cents to find out this prized bit of information, which, back in the early 20s, was quite a lot of cash to the boy. So he scraped and saved, and then after sending his hard-earned quarter in to the claimant, he stood by patiently for several long weeks, waiting for the good news to arrive.

The letter did come. Dad excitedly tore open the envelope. Happy day, happy day!

Then from it he removed a small white card. Printed on one side were the words, "Work like hell and save your money".

We tend to forget things, us humans. At some point later, this intelligent young man found another tempting offer hiding among the back pages of another slick publication. This one professed a sure-fire way to kill ants. Guaranteed to work. No doubt about it. After all, it claimed to be “sure-fire”.

This was certainly what he needed, so he began saving up the money, one cent at a time. The mailman eventually dropped off a small package at my father’s doorstep. He ran to the kitchen, telling his mother, “It’s here!”

She smiled as he began ripping into the box, overjoyed by her son’s enthusiasm. She half-smiled as he withdrew a small wooden block from the carton, followed next by a tiny wooden mallet. But the smile vanished like a fair-weather friend as he read to her the short list of included instructions.

1. Place ant on block.

2. Strike with mallet.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Do I Wake up Grumpy, or Let Him Sleep?

My dear wife keeps insisting for me to tell this particular story. Bless her heart. Surely she wants the world to know what a bonehead I can be. So here I sit, left with no course but to plow forward and prove her right. At least there is that. Anything to keep the little woman happy.

It is not a very good story, I have to admit. It’s missing a proper ending. There is no closure; no conclusion; no suitable finish or a right way to shut the thing down with any amount of satisfaction. And I’d much rather spend more time erecting signs telling the reader to stop and go back, but I do like to sit at her table and eat, so.

Many years ago I had a different wife, and a much different life. She and I owned a huge car, but had no kids at the time. The two of us lived in a fairly modern duplex located on a military base in the Mojave desert of California. I spent lots of off-duty hours attending to my precious lawn. I watered it. I mowed it twice a week. I clipped all of the edges until they looked fine. And I’d sit for hours looking for and pulling weeds. I hated the weeds.

My lawn, so stay the hell out. Scat! Go away. How am I going to win the Lawn of the Week award with you guys showing up all the time?

The wife would join me only to hang out the laundry. It’s beautiful, she would say. Yeah, well you aren’t down here where I am. Look. There’s another one. Damn it.

She was a good sport, but I took it serious.

One day some new neighbors moved in. The man walked over and introduced himself halfway through the event. I stood up and shook hands with him, and the two of us talked briefly. Nice fellow, I told the wife later.

Now I had a part-time job playing in a four-piece band out in town on the weekends, so the next Friday night I packed up the white Olds (we called her the Queen Mary), and took off for the club. The wife stayed home, being underage.

Saturday mornings were made for sleeping in. I awoke sometime around the crack of noon, stumbled into the kitchen, and stood at the sink while I poured myself a cup of coffee. Not being one to dance and sing when I get up, I stayed there while taking a few sips, staring out our window at my lawn. I knew they were out there, and they knew that I would be coming for them shortly. Sassy weeds. Ha. Just wait.

I always parked the Queen Mary either in the street, or in the driveway of a row of garages that sat next to the street. Around the third sip I noticed she was gone. She wasn’t in the street; that much was obvious. I craned my neck forward to see if the stern of the boat was visible in the drive. It wasn’t.

Hey. Where’s my damn car?

Honey, you loaned it to Julio.

Julio? Who the hell is Julio?

Our new neighbor, remember?


He came over and asked if he could borrow it.

What? When in thunder did this happen?

This morning.

What? Who the hell loaned him my car?

Honey, you did.


You did.

When? (I set the cup down)

This morning, I told you.

Look. What’s going on? I never loaned no damned Julio my car, and I never would either. I hardly know the guy.

Well, you sure did.

What are you talking about, woman?

He came over early and asked me if he could use it to go to Los Angeles, but I said he’d have to ask you.

Los Angeles?

So I let him come in, and then he asked you.

When I was in bed? Asleep? You let him come into our bedroom?

I didn’t want to wake you.

But you let him.

Well, I wasn’t going to.

Damn, woman. Are you nuts or what?

No, but you certainly are in the morning.

I spent the rest of one long day pulling weeds out in the front yard, mumbling and worrying. Julio got back from LA around eleven that night, so one of the other band members had to give me a ride. I never had much to do with Mr. Julio afterwards.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Just So and Why

At the profane age of seven, or maybe eight, I got caught up in a whopper of a lie. The item had heart. It also had spirit. The thing came upon me suddenly, and it lived a magnificent if not short existence on this earth. In all honesty, my young soul grieved to have to let the contraption go so early. I may have even wept at its demise.

I had been standing next to my mother while she and my older sister shopped on the third floor of a fashionable department store in downtown Savannah. They, being preoccupied with new garments and admiring conversation, had forgotten about my insignificant presence. My loving father, who had wisely wandered away to another part of the store, had placed little me under their charge.

Some time after his departure, I heard an emergency siren outside. I perked right up at the sound. And I listened closely as the wailing grew louder and louder as whatever machine making that noise drew closer and closer.

As my ears and I listened to those magnificent tones, my imagination took off running down a Street of Speculate.

Where could that detail be headed, it asked?

My creative side made a sudden turn down an Avenue of What If, and it then posed a deeper question.

Whom could the thing be coming for?

Then I noticed an expansive Parkway of Possibility that lay before me and the entire world.

The clamor came to a sudden hush outside in front of our building. The excitement quieted and faded away, but the question remained stuck in my head.

And then a plausible answer stirred within me.

But then I noticed no one had been paying attention to the amazing siren. What a lovely sound to have heard. What a wonderful, lovely sound. And by the looks on their faces, everyone around me missed it entirely.

So I looked up at my mother’s sweet face and tugged once on her dress.

And when she looked down at her cherubic son, I calmly told her,

“They just picked up Dad.”

That promptly got both of those women’s attention.

Bear With Me

Young Timothy William Dexter decides that bears need friendly hugs, so he leaves his California home and shoots off up to Alaska, him and his small tent.

At some point along the way, he changes his name to Timothy Treadwell.

Then he goes to tread well amongst and video tape these neighbor bears of his.

He even takes time to revisit the Lower 48 to show school kiddies footage of the cute critters. He tells them all about his new friends, Boobles, Freckles and Mr. Chocolate. The kids adore the idea.

He soon returns to Katmia National Park and the Alaskan wild.

Sitting among a grove of aspens, within feet of a huge boar, he croons to the grizzly beast, "I love you; you love me..."

At some point, maybe toward the end of that particular bothersome song, the bear, some bear, a Freckles or maybe Boobles, or perhaps Mr. Chocolate, decided enough was enough.

So he (or she) tastefully ate Mr. Treadwell.

Don Quixote had his windmills.

Timothy Treadwell had his bears.

And the bears had Treadwell, as well.

Guard Mount

Thirty-two languid days afloat. Thirty-two days cramped aboard a troop ship. Thirty-two days of eating every single meal standing upright while serving trays, heaped with tasteless chow, slide across stainless steel tables, responding to each roll or sway of a heartless freighter. Thirty-two days of cold salt-water showers. Thirty-two drawn-out days enduring sickening diesel fumes are spent living among clammy human bones wearing reeking socks. Thirty-two never-ending days of dry heaves come to a glad end.

Young Aubrey waddles down the long gangplank as fast as he can. His first and singular goal is to reach the long-dreamed-for footing of solid ground at its end. His face contorts from the mighty strain of two cumbersome duffel bags; one perched precariously on his left shoulder, while the other he grips with his right hand. Anxiety over a potentially lost hat only adds to his discomfort as the thing tilts sideways on his bobbing head.

A steady stream of soldiers flow from the crowded ship. An assembly area along the creosote-soaked docks soon becomes precise order and quiet. Only then does a senior man read aloud from a clipboard while he barks out crisp directions. In a short time Aubrey finds himself hugging a metal pole for balance, as he stands upright inside a cattle car crowded with other inexperienced Marines. His bus leads a procession of six.

A ride to an airport takes the group away from the waterfront. They travel down jam-packed streets filled with unfamiliar sounds and strange sights, and most overpowering to all of his senses, a feast of exotic smells. The driver weaves slowly through throngs of cars and bicycles. Horns punctuate the steady roar of the diesel coach as Aubrey tries to comprehend these surroundings.

Two transport planes prepare for flight. A soaring above the mundane fast comes to an end, followed by a short ride in the back seat of a bouncing jeep, which in turn delivers him and three other young soldiers to their new quarters.

Aubrey and his companions are promptly dumped in front of a low concrete structure. Report inside, they are told. They stand on a sidewalk among foothills of sea bags as the jeep speeds away. Dust from a hard-packed dirt road surges up in its wake. Along the edge of the fresh-poured walkway, small wooden pegs protrude; the bare earth surrounding the men tells of new construction still underway.

A host of animated voices from within the barracks greets the four men as they enter. Once inside, a sergeant informs the four that a guard mount is about to gather out back for a routine inspection.

But we just got here, the young men attempt to explain.

No matter, they are told. You have exactly three minutes.

And with that, the man in charge turns on his heels and heads for the rear of the building.

Those prepared and accustom to this routine mill about, shouting raucous insults among themselves. Locker doors slam. Rifles are removed from racks. Men drift to the back exit.

Quickly Aubrey spins the dial on a padlock that secures one duffel bag. It is marked with a red tag. Inside a rifle waits, dismantled for easy stowage. He breaks into a sweat when the first try fails.

Wrong combination. That must go to the other lock. The first number should be fourteen.

Soldiers stream out the back door. Two minutes, a voice yells from outside. His three jeep mates pass on by, carrying weapons at the ready. You better hurry it up, man, one of them shouts.

He rapidly reverses the spin of the dial to clear the lock, but fumbles the order on the second try. One lone man slams a foot locker and leaves. Is it twenty-six or fourteen?

The barracks stands vacant now, except for Aubrey. Through the open hatch he catches a glimpse of the formation outside. He reverse-spins the dial again. The puzzle clicks open on the third try. After he removes the three sections of his rifle, the sea bag tumbles sideways to the floor. A tangle of boots and a crumpled rain slicker spill out.

He hastily assembles the weapon, and then as quickly slides opens the bolt. Anxiously hoisting the rifle butt-first toward light streaming from a near-by window, he peers up through the barrel. But instead of a metallic shine one should expect, he finds the shaft obstructed with an odd greenish glow.

Horrified at the sight, he tosses the rifle onto a near-by bunk. Dropping to his knees he begins to paw frantically through the opened canvas bag, searching for a small metal case. Rifle-cleaning rod! Rifle-cleaning rod! Quick! Where is it? Is this the right bag? Did I leave wadding in that one section? Fingers recognize the smooth box.

One minute left, demands the voice.

The contents of the case spill. A diminutive container of cleaning fluid rolls away. A small bag filled with cloth squares lands and lays still. Three single rods clatter to the floor, then travel in three directions. No wadding in the end section. No time anyway.

Hastily grabbing the mold-filled rifle, Aubrey sends the bolt home, leaving the mess where it lays. He trots out the back door, tugging hard at his brass belt buckle. At least that part of him is squared away.

A glare from the sergeant alarms the soldier. Joining the platoon, he stands at attention and tries to relax as he exhales and stares straight ahead. The sergeant spins around to salutes a young officer who approaches. The lieutenant returns the salute curtly. Both men then turn to the inspection.

Young Aubrey waits his fate with a draining sense of dread, knowing all too well his fortune is out of his control. He stands a grand chance of going straight to the brig today. The Corps will not tolerate dirty weapons; to be caught with one is a most serious offence.

Mold ignored? The brig for you, soldier. Hard labor and confinement. The shame. Losing the only stripe ever earned.

His imagination competes with trembling legs. The unsympathetic lieutenant suddenly steps into his line of sight.

Aubrey brings the rifle swiftly up to port-arms. Smack! And the adolescent officer takes it from him. Stare straight ahead. Don’t flinch. Try to appear calm. Try to look confident. Bread and water await you, son.

The lieutenant eyes the sheen of the polished wood stock. He cannot appear pleased; nothing can please young lieutenants.

He flips the rifle up-side down as blood races in the boy’s head. A tiny trickle of sweat glides down between his shoulder blades. The entire platoon seems to be listening; watching. In just a few seconds the secret shall be exposed.

The lieutenant holds the rifle steady. His eyes study the trigger guard. Balancing the piece with one hand, he extends a pinkie finger and rubs it across the metal surface. Aubrey silently wishes for two conflicting things to happen together: hurry up and get this ordeal over with, and to be someplace where no Marine nor rifle or officer exists.

Griffin eyes slowly rise to meet the soldier’s blank stare. Still holding the weapon with one hand, a fresh-shaved chin juts out deliberately, and then the man’s head tilts to one side. The cocksure lieutenant then hisses out a single question.

“How did this get there?” And his still-extended finger points to the outer surface of the trigger guard.

Surprised and jolted at this early stage of the game, Aubrey cuts his eyes downward.

He didn’t open the bolt yet. He hasn’t looked down the barrel. So what is he talking about?

The officer glares and waits for a response. A look of bafflement creeps over the soldier’s face as he searches to discover the problem.

In an accusing manner only young lieutenants are adept at, the officer leans forward and lifts the weapon a little higher. Aubrey cranes his neck closer to the threatening predicament.

“Do you not see that, marine?”

Aubrey sees something on the metal surface, but he is confounded for an answer. The officer’s neatly trimmed fingernail rests next to a tiny spot no larger than a match head. The blemish looks almost invisible, until the sun catches it right. Just a shade darker than the metal itself, the discoloration appears nameless to the perplexed soldier.

A look of disgust overtakes the officer. Before Aubrey can stammer out a word, the lieutenant tosses the rifle back. The enraged man marches off after ordering him to “get rid of that rust!” He leaves with a dire warning that next time, there would be no leniency for such a dirty weapon.

Aubrey is one lucky child.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Georgia Crackers

Little Children, Running through the Fields…

Louie kept a watermelon patch next to the woods where the Tarzan tree grew. The three nosy stair-step children somehow knew the moment when these dusty-green melons turned ripe, even before he did.

One hot Georgia afternoon the forest had fell quiet. They were lazing on the lower limbs of the tree house when the sudden idea of sweet red fruit occurred to the older boy.


And in a heartbeat the three half-naked children tumbled to the ground.

Leaving rough perches behind, little bare feet then padded silently along a half-hidden path lined with low gooseberry bushes, forest daisies and tiny fairy castles. The old forest canopy kept the bright heavens at bay, except for its outer edges. The three broke through this zone to emerge from their dim-lit sanctuary and pause. Separated only by a crude barrier, before them lay the delectable prize.

Climbing between two strands of barbed wire, the two girls and one boy raced each other from the bordering shade of the tangle’s edge, and out into the sunlit field. Spreading out to search amid a carpet of large leaves, they each looked for the biggest melon they could find, intent on satisfying this impulsive taste for hearts.

Days later, old Louie stood silent as he viewed the carnage, wondering what sort of frenzied creatures had invaded his quiet little patch of Heaven.

Catching butterflies on the wing…

Tales of the alligator laid deliciously in the backs of their little minds every time the three children rowed around the huge lake, their eyes sweeping the waters around them. Killing the creature the first week the family moved in gave the adults enough reason to celebrate with a party. Scores of neighbors had showed up to feast on the barbequed gator; even the cantankerous grandmother, confusing the meat for pork, claimed she enjoyed the tasty affair. No one ever bothered to set her straight.

Sunshine filtering through the pine trees…

A thick layer of brown needles covered the sandy south shore. Here, in the twilight shade of pines, was a perfect place to lay and rest after a diligent search for pirate treasure. Of course it was buried here. They knew that for a fact. It looked so right; just so piratey -- exactly the sort of place bandits would choose to hide the loot. They reckoned enough existed hidden away, just mere inches below the soil, to build a fine house on this very spot someday.

Don’t it make you want to sing…

Saturday, January 08, 2005

A Few Good Words

A group of young Marines sat in a morning class half-awake when a senior instructor walked out on stage. He stopped to hang a small placard in front of his podium entitled, “How to Instruct”.

Next he removed a pack of Marlboro cigarettes from a shirt pocket. He carefully placed it on top of the stand.

Gazing out over the now-alert audience, he then asked for a volunteer, and of course, one stood up.

The man asked him to come and show him how to open the pack of smokes.

The youngster, when standing next to the instructor, thought hard before speaking.

“Do you see the red and white three-inch-high by two-inch-wide package sitting on the four-foot-high podium?”

“The brown wooden podium.” He added.

“Yes I do,” The sergeant replied.

“Pick it up,” The kid said.

The instructor reached over, grabbed the pack and squeezed it hard. He then lifted the crushed object high up in the air.

“O-open the pack,” The kid stammered.

The older man used both hands to twist and rip the package in half. When he finished, he held the two parts aloft again, and he looked out over his audience.

“When you teach, always give clear instructions.”

Friday, January 07, 2005

Don't Worry -- Be Harry

I’m shunning the nazi druggist here in Hoohooville. That’s my singular quest that began some two months ago. One crisp night this drained-looking professional stood behind his locked doors at five minutes until the closing hour, dressed in his clean white smock while pointing to his expensive gold watch , mouthing his words slowly, “We are closed”.

I yelled back through the glass that it’s five till, and I need that damn prescription tonight -- the one I called in thirty minutes ago, but then I stopped there before I added pinhead.

He stared blankly back at me. I needed an explanation, apparently. Our computer’s are shut down, was all the information I got from the man.

I tell you what. I’ll drive to the next town where they have real drugstores that stay open all night, and you can forget my business from here on out. At that point, I declined to add pinhead. There was no sense in making the nice gentleman mad by insulting him, plus I was tired and shivering. So I left there for another adventurous journey.

Last week, this whole thing came up again. Of course the timing was bad all around, being the end of the holidays. I thought I gave the wife a four-day heads-up by telling her about my needs, but that turned out to be useless. I tire of debating the issue with her, so I relented. The woman loves to go shopping, plus she likes to give Hoohooville her business, I suppose.

So would I, but I have a whole different idea on how to do that.

In any case, she later returns with the item and some good news, she calls it.

“They didn’t make me pay; they let me charge it.”

She looks so happy.

For now, I must retreat to the back of my cave, vowing to continue my quest.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Free Stuff

The wooden rail around the deck is capped with a ridge of fresh snow. Our deck now lays hidden beneath an uneven white blanket, while flower pots rest in their wind-swept craters. The dead flowers look so lovely.

It’s a snow day in Northern Illinois. The school called early, so the house is filled now with sounds of telephone conversations and video games. David has had the television going since nine. The adventures of Clifford the Big Red Dog follows George Shrinks. His name reminds me of a chiropractor I used to visit; a helpful Dr. Stretch. I remember another man that fired me long ago whose last name was Hatchet.

Ali busies herself searching the net for new phone plans. One that is free, I ask? Not only free, they pay me a rebate after three months of use, she says. Now tell me there is no free lunch. But first, let me go make a sandwich.

Forty Miles from Fort Worth

The familiar smell of diesel fumes mingling with other night odors, and all of the commotion present in and around big-city bus terminals gets me light-headed with anticipation. I try hard to look at ease while standing in line with these strangers.

A porter and another male to my left are busy overlooking a handcart piled with luggage. The worried white man tells the black man to take it easy. The unhurried porter barely nods as he throws the last suitcase on top of the stack. Then he saunters to the rear where he leans on a handle with both hands. From there he begins to push the weighty load toward the bus.

A tired driver takes his sweet time by first examining and then clipping each of our individual tickets with a device he holds in one hand. A silver chain connects it securely to his leather belt. Sliding my suitcase across the asphalt with one foot, I offer him a folded envelope containing my ticket home. He takes the permit out and holds it up to the florescent lights overhead, squints at it studiously, and then after giving me a listless look he punches a neat hole in one corner. Then he hands me back both items. The man doesn’t bother putting my ticket back inside the envelope.

A large flap of a metal door, part of the right side of the coach, stands raised to an open position. Muffled thumps of each suitcase being tossed inside the low-slung compartment are heard as I mount the three steps to climb aboard. All the interior lights glow from the ceiling. Most of the forward seats are taken.

Clutching the ticket in one hand, it’s a bit of a struggle wrestling my suitcase to the unfilled section toward the rear. Hardly anyone pays me any attention. I lift the valise over my head, lodge it into the rack above an empty seat, and then sit down.

I wish I had bought myself a magazine to read, but it’s too late to get one now. The outside luggage compartment door slams shut. I can see the driver down there, talking to the porter. He stops and listens while he hangs on to his cart, and then he tilts his head back while a mute laugh escapes his mouth. The driver walks away as the employee pushes his now partially-filled cart to another waiting bus parked along side this one.

The hum and vibration of my coach’s engine is both relaxing as it is thrilling. In a few minutes we will leave the sleeping city of Fort Worth behind. My summer vacation has ended much too soon.

Mitch taught me how to drive one day last week. He woke me up early in the morning by merrily dangling his keys in front of my sleepy face while booming his boisterously jovial laugh, the one that always shakes rooms.

I jumped up wide-awake and dressed fast, knowing exactly what he had in mind, but stern Maria insisted that we men, as she called us, eat before we left. I gobbled down two fried eggs, toast and a glass of milk. Mitch had the same plus coffee. Maria let me skip washing dishes on that particular morning, but she insisted I clear the table, so I did that chore in a hurry, too.

They had been married for a couple of years, and rented an old farmhouse from Mitch’s parents. He worked two jobs in Cleburne; hauling garbage at one place, and as a welder at another. He had given me permission to use an old .22 rifle that he had when he was a boy. It made me awful proud, and then sick to my stomach afterwards, the first time I shot and killed an innocent bird.

For two full weeks I had free reign to wander the thick woods out behind their house, investigating and exploring hills and creek banks. Once, I took a shot at and scattered a small family of cottontails. Most of the time I unintentionally collected ticks. Mitch later hoo-hawed at my squirming while he held a hot match tip close to the deep-buried ones.

He owned an old Ford tractor that he let me operate one afternoon. We took it for a spin around a fenced pasture that sat next to the house. He perched on one of the large rear fenders while I steered, and yelled in my ear which gear to go to next. The event terrified me, but not Mitch. He held on tight while he bounced, laughing above the drumming noise from the tractor motor.

His late model two-toned sedan sat parked in a dirt driveway, right next to the front porch. He followed me out the screen door and climbed in on the passenger side. Since I held the keys, I went around and jumped in behind the steering wheel. All he said was crank her up and head for the pasture, so I did.

He sat quiet and said no more as I crept along, headed for the opened gate, but once I cleared the fence line, he told me to give it more gas, so I obeyed.

For the next thirty minutes I drove in circles around the empty field. Mitch let loose an occasional guffaw whenever I shifted and ground the gears. I just grinned and kept going.

A loud hiss comes from somewhere beneath the bus. The released air brakes jolts me back to the present. I lean to watch as the driver reaches over and pulls on a lever. The folding doors swing shut. In a moment we are sliding past a stationary bus parked a few feet away. I lay my face hard against the window as we sail out of the station, missing the brick building by scant inches. He turns a corner, and the night terminal slips past and out of our sight. Gears whine while neon signs in dark windows appear and disappear. We pick up speed as we go. Goodbye, Cowtown.

Just before leaving the city limits, the interior lights flicker once, and then they go off. The abrupt darkness brings solitude. Our driver reaches for a microphone, and while negotiating one last stoplight and a final turn, he announces destinations that lay ahead. The sounds and motions of the moving coach soon begin to lull most of the passengers to sleep.

As we leave city lights behind, I keep my face pressed to the cool glass. I can just see a portion of our headlights as they guide us onward. This is familiar countryside to me, yet this is my first time to travel it in the dark. A set of Burma Shave signs go by unread.

We pass along side of what I know to be several miles of lush green pastures. Their rolling hilly horizons are barely visible against the sky. The driver downshifts at each small rise in elevation. The bus fairly sings as it rocks and sways its way toward my home.

I gauge a half-hour has passed as we begin to overtake a slower car up ahead. Our driver expertly glides around and in front of the car, then we slide over into the two small beams of its headlights. I won’t sleep. I have an urge to help watch. I feel important.

Then far away, a gigantic green-tinted mushroom cloud rises above a distant small hill. It pushes its way violently into the night sky. A brilliant yellow glow from beyond the knoll lights up the bottom of the peculiar billowing cloud, and then fades as suddenly as it appeared. Both colors and cloud then blend back into black. All remains quiet on the bus, but my heart begins to thump as my eyes stare into the darkness in front of us.

A few turns of the road later, and our bus begins to slow down. Heads rise up as bodies stir in the forward seats. The bus comes to a halt. Murmurs from disturbed passengers begin to rise and fall while necks crane from darkened seats. As soon as the coach stops, the driver shoots out the doorway; vacating his seat. He leaves us in the dark coach. The diesel engine purrs. The bi-fold doors remain open. After a few seconds, several passengers follow in his wake.

This is most unusual. Bus drivers along this West Texas route often make unannounced stops. But commuters always keep their seats unless given permission to leave.

I step down off the bus and onto the black pavement. Curiously approaching the front, I enter a setting of surreal disorder.

Our headlights illuminate a swath of the macadam road. A huge distorted box lies some distance away. It rests at an odd angle across the highway, and the entity looms as large as our bus.

On the roadbed between the large box and us lay scattered objects. A field of cellophane-wrapped packages containing notebook paper dot the roadbed. Some have burst. Loose sheets of writing paper lay sprinkled about; white and stilled.

My incredulous eyes search the debris-strewn road – hundreds of these packages lay spilled everywhere. Among the flat packets are scores of cigarette cartons. Here and there loose packs glisten like eyes of night creatures in our headlights.

Two opened doors at the near end of the box face us. Or at least they appear to be doors – both are mangled and twisted. Then I recognize the sets of tandem tires protruding from the left wall of the box. What I am seeing is a semi-trailer flipped on its side.

Our uniformed driver jogs the length of the trailer and disappears around the far end . Passing the stunned passengers, I hurry to catch up.

There I find him beside two other men. The three stand and stare at the cab of a semi. It lays sideways. A white roof, an extended hood and a double-sectioned windshield greet my astonished gaze. One pane is covered with spidery cracks, but remains in place. Wisps of smoke (or maybe steam; I can’t tell which), rise lazily from under the hood.

One of the men points to a darkened bar ditch off to one side. There I can barely make out the inert form of a dead cow.

The two men and my driver speak, but remain riveted in place. I myself am unable to move. Fuel drips from one of the saddle tanks mounted behind the overturned cab, and it pools on the pavement below. A muffled voice suddenly shouts from inside the cab.

“Someone get me out of here!”

No one moves.

“Now! Please!”

The men in front of me exchange brief looks.

The voice cries out again.

“Hurry, oh God, hurry! This thing is going to catch on fire! Both my legs are pinned.”

The pair and my driver spring forward. He aids the two as they climb to the top side where the passenger door is now located, and they begin yanking on the door, trying to spring it open. My driver, looking helpless, can only stare up at them from the pavement.

I glance over to my right and into the blinding beams of our idling bus. Several automobiles have parked behind the coach. Their headlights help to light up the scene. Silhouettes of people with heads bowed mill slowly around the roadway. One dark shape after another reaches to pick something up. Then after stuffing the items in a pocket, or tucking them away inside a shirt, the shapes move a little farther on, still searching.

The two men on the cab heave on the door while the man inside continues to plead. My driver abruptly runs back to his bus, hurls the luggage door open and begins to search for something – I hope a prying tool of some sort. One of the scavengers gives me a glance, and then his eyes follow the driver racing back to the sideways cab. The hunter then returns his focus to the road, the shoulders of the road and the wide ditches on either side.

No progress has been made with the stubborn door. One of the men stands up and tries to peer over the top of the long trailer as our out-of-breath driver arrives. The other one continues to claw and pull at the wedged-tight portal, but he is having no luck.

The bus driver stretches to hand up a crowbar when the fuel on the ground suddenly catches fire. Tiny flames spread with a fury and circles the cab. My driver jumps back and yells out a warning. Both men leap to the ground and run.

The driver runs. We all run. Within seconds the cab burst into flames behind us with a loud whoosh.

I see a yellow reflection in a pair of glasses as I dart past a busy man who pauses only to stare.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


“This journey started out more than sixty years ago.”
With that, the old man sat down for a rest
“The time has come to tell of things I know too well.”
But first I offered water to my road-weary guest

He took the drink I held, and he put it to his lip
He closed his eyes and tilted back his head
He raised up his brow. He drank, and then he swallowed
Then satisfied, he sat it down; and this is what he said

“It began from the outset with no clear plan or reason.”
And a far-away look came into his eyes
“I packed up my raft and the two of us fixed sail
On constant moving currents set below the lonesome skies.”

I could not help but picture him as a very young man
Heading for the verge of some exotic shore
Filled with his desires of insatiable regard
So I lent an ear and asked him to please tell me more

He said, “I met misfortune, and her almost at once
Yet as odd as it may sound, I really felt secure
The raft overturned and dumped me in the sea
But I reveled in the fact that I was able to endure

I washed up on the beach of a score of unknown islands
Which you should know, were my intended plans
For I dreamed of this moment, back in my youth
So I set forth exploring among these foreign sands.”

He paused and took a drink as I sat with my patience
Then he told me of strangers that he had came across
More that I could hope to itemize for now
But I got a sense of how he must have felt so lost

“I wandered up some pathways that led to woe and trouble
And I went to places angels feared to tread
Though how I escaped still remains a mystery.”
He shrugged and smiled and said that he really should be dead.

He showed me his scars and told me of his wars
Yet I could tell the man was very grateful for his fate
He finished up his drink; then rose up for to leave
And said, “I should be going as the day is growing late”

I was not one to press him or cause this man discomfort
But I’m sure he caught the question that played in both my eyes
He hoisted up his pack, but then he hesitated
First he looked at me, and then he looked up toward the skies

“I see you want to know how I got this peace I have
That lives within this sorry soul of mine.”
His eyes began to glisten, but his lips portrayed a smile
And he told me he once tasted a long sip from the Vine

Now a shiver ran right through me; contemplating this
I thought I knew, and yet I wasn’t sure
But something down inside knew within an instant
His implication was not of an alcoholic cure

“You yourself arrived here, though you don't remember
Dirty; and you’re bound up in it yet
I myself was like you until the day I found
The only One who possibly could ever pay my debt.”

Then he thanked me for my kindness. Then he turned and walked away
And left me there, standing all alone
And I have to say his words ate into my wretched heart
But live within me fresh, even though the man has gone

So now I must offer to strangers and all pilgrims
A drink for restoration, one to shore up a tired soul
That thirsts for Living Water and pure true peace
It’s given to all freely. And it’s worth is more than gold

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Somebody Yars Me

Church turned out different today. A younger man, a visiting chaplain, got up to preach a fairly simple sermon about good and bad tenants, taken from a parable found in the gospel of Mark.

But prior to this, and during the singing portion of our service, one of the songs being sung got graced with an untimely and loud clang or two. It didn't seem to affect the crowd much at all when some object decided to fall from the pulpit and bounce and skitter across the tile floor, although it caught my son David's attention.

The eleven-year-old immediately raised up from his prone position to crane his head over the chairs in front of us. There he saw a foot-long U-shaped metal device laying on the floor, which excited me to place an index finger up to my lips as a cautionary instruction. He glumly complied at my signal, but he didn't forget.

An unfamiliar man in the row ahead of us noticed it too. As the rest of the room sang their hearts out, I recognized by several of his quick glances that the out-of-place thing laying in the aisle had him worried.

“Praise to the Lord who with marvelous…”

(Fleeting look to the left)

“Wisdom hath made thee…”

(Another hasty glance)

“Decked thee with health, and with…”

(Furtive turn of the head)

“Loving hand guided and stayed thee.”

I think that last line broke the poor fellow’s will to do nothing, so he took a few hasty steps to retrieve the object. Placing the naughty thing back, we then all settled down to some serious and uninterrupted praising. Little David laid low for the duration, and to his father, further unmoved.

Then after all the robust singing ended, followed by an offering and a thankful prayer from an Elder, the younger gentleman in front of me stood up. He next strode to the podium where he turned and faced us with a cheery “Good morning.” We all responded to that well, being the civilized folk.

He then laid a few prepared notes on the metal stand, cleared his throat and began.

I knew that odd gadget lay hidden from view behind his pulpit. I also knew some lesson to do with this item was about to come along shortly, but I tried ignoring that curiosity by focusing more on his words.

The man started to preach first about landlords and bad tenants. After talking for some time about how men are prone to steal from each other, he paused and held the device up at last.

He then began describing to us what he termed “man’s ultimate cure for bicycle thievery”.

Well, that was a switch in the conversation. And of course everyone paid close attention. Even David sat up. Here was this thing, this strange gadget, this uncommon item named Kryptonite Bike Lock; useless as a musical instrument, we all now knew, but most-powerful as a security device.

Then he smiled as he withdrew a Bic ballpoint pen from his coat pocket. This cheap plastic devise can defeat the expensive one, he related, which illustrated how God uses the weak things of the world to defeat the strong.

And he went on to tell of an available video clip on the internet that handsomely demonstrates the fallibility of man in this regard, without supplying us with a link, naturally.

But who knew?

Now my main job, after the sermon is done, is to hustle David out to the van. This is to prevent him from doing sanctuary damage or upsetting any of the peaceful natives. I stood up sharply after the benison, but he managed to slip by me and head toward the lonely lock. I am fortunate he owns no pen, so we both left with no harm done.

While he and I waited in the van, the radio kept the two of us entertained. On it, Garrison Keillor told a tale of starting his dad’s car on a cold Minnesota morning by rolling it down a hill, and then taking a journey down the frozen Mississippi River before returning home.

As the piece ended, the rest of the family joined us, so we drove to a restaurant for lunch. On the way I tried to relate the story as best I could by making up a few of the Scandinavian words Keillor threw in.

I couldn’t remember the right word for “Stop!” that Garrison used, so that one came out creatively as “Yars!”

Well, that put everyone in a much better mood. David began singing “Yars that! Yars that! Yars that tickling me!” All the way to the diner.

Now as luck will have it, our nice waitress, a tall and slim blonde woman, came right over to our booth and asked,

“Vould you like to arder now, or vould you like to vait?”

Sensing an opportune moment to maybe learn the correct word for “stop”, I didn’t hesitate to inquire,

“Are you Scandinavian?”

Well, it seemed like a good question to me.

“What?” She stopped and stared at me.

Now I am a little hard of hearing, so thinking she might suffer as well, I repeated the question louder.

Her whole body froze as she thought a second.

“Zee Navy?”

I could tell my phraseology wasn’t working, so in desperation I zoomed over to another country.

“Are you from Sweden, perhaps?”

By now her eyes appeared to be darting back and forth.

“Sweeten? Vot is dis sweeten?”

I am sitting in the corner with no other place left to go, so the wife interrupts sweetly.

“What country are you from?”

“Oh. I am from Hungary.”

Funny how women can communicate so damn easily.

My brain began to scream then,

“Yars! Let’s order food, now.”

Later I left a suitable tip.

Then we came home.

And now I sit here trying to come up with a good story. Maybe I’ll get lucky later on, but I am going to yars for the time being.