From the edge of the swamp

Location: marengo, il, United States

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Gambling Fools

His stare caused time to stand still. The tone of the man’s commanding voice rang clear, and it effortlessly calmed the surrounding air. Each statement he uttered came deliberate and steady, and every brand new soldier before him stood riveted and focused.

Good morning, and welcome to Hotel Company.

His dark gaze swept over the group.

Stand at ease, men.

The platoon relaxed.

While you are here, address me as Sergeant. Never, ever call me sir.

No one spoke.

I have three simple rules.

Eyes watched while ears listened.

And I expect each of you to obey them. Respect my three rules, and I will respect you.

Bodies leaned forward.

Number one: Sunday is your day off.

Some of the young men smiled.

Number two: There will be no card games on Sundays.

Eyebrows arched here and there.

Number three: There will be absolutely no gambling for money whatsoever, on any day.

Everybody froze.

Are my rules understood?

In unison, the platoon replied.

Yes, Sergeant!

Over time, their studying of war continued. A first payday arrived during the middle of their second week.

Later that night in barracks one, a curtain, hastily made from a wool blanket and hung between two bunks, hid a small band of fools along with their game of poker. At some point during the excitement, a hushed figure slipped past the green drape, and then stood for awhile among the other onlookers. During a short lull, that commanding voice sounded once again. Aided by an up-lifted hand, it signified a strange thing.

Move over, boys. Make room for one more.

And the Sergeant took a seat among the shocked troops, and was hastily dealt his first hand of cards.

In less than thirty minutes, he collected his winnings from the table, rose to stand, and then looked sternly at his people.

For the next hour you are all on restriction. I am going next door to catch another game, and after that, I will stop by barracks three. Goodnight.

At dawn the next morning, the Sergeant held aloft a large sack of booty for the entire platoon to see, and he spoke ever so gently to his much-poorer men.

I warned you all about gambling, did I not?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Caring for Melons

So far, I have said little about this territory which surrounds me, but today I throw cares to the winds as I prepare to speak out. (I feel duty-bound to do this deed and once I am done, you have my permission to have your way with me.) But the anticipation has me all excited. My heartbeat has begun to pound inside my chest, while right outside my doorway, the air lays thick, still and heavy. My mouth just went dry. Dark rain clouds gather in the skies. The crickets have hushed. The crickets, little ones, have each went silent again.

Now a sharp listener might take note of a few errors that shall occur, because I will not slow down to research facts nor pause to check for any sort of accuracy as I go to spill these beans. No, speed is essential here -- I am about to reveal a marvelous state secret.

Please allow me to set the stage quickly before the authorities show up.

I live near a vast prairie. In my daily travels, I get to witness timely arrivals of wildflowers which grow near edges of the smooth macadam roads I normally take. First to arrive is a carpet made of tiny and regal blue ones. Then hoards of grand white ones take over as groupings of tall, bright orange ones wave to the world. A scattering of yellows is later followed by a wide-spread sprinkling of pale lavenders, and throughout the warm months, all of them appear just lovely.

I also watch the progress of corn and soy beans, which fill the remaining landscapes, as well as occasional deer or coyote. Clumps of trees here and there afford comfortable homes for them and other smaller creatures. Black crows, red-tailed hawks and seagulls patrol our skies, along with the usual run of smaller birds.

(Crows are very territorial animals. A certain murder inhabits a farm along my route, and this gives credence to my claim: three of the crows in the gang are rare albinos, and easy to spot.)

And then there are the numerous, common folk of Hoohooville. Nothing remarkable can honestly be said about them. They are average in both size and demeanor, and prove to be not much different from southern breeds I have met, other than their enormous numbers. Most are polite and sociable, and all appear to have intelligence. Almost every one of them will drop whatever occupies their interest, when confronted properly, and then spend an inordinate amount of effort engaging in conversations that can cover every subject imaginable.

(They do talk, these people. This is not an indictment, patient listener, but a simple observation, and not my point at all. And yes, I freely admit that I myself have been so affected at times, and have come away from some of these encounters both dizzied and disorientated, and also delightfully relieved.)

So to wrap up this sketch, let me tell of the day I first arrived here, after a long stay in a near-by city of some importance.

I left behind that city of flattened land with its mathematically arranged streets and rows of homes and office buildings, and took a curved and often hilly road that, for the next twenty miles, revealed to me one bucolic view after another. My heart sang as I rushed past this scenery toward my new home.

I saw rolling hills. Trees rode on far horizons. Content cows chewed in spacious fields. Horses stood at ease, whispering as I sailed past their greened pastures. At the end of the day I caught myself jabbering excitedly about that trip, and did so for weeks afterwards, I am told. Yes, Hoohooville quickly became a most-enjoyable place to live. But sooner than expected, a dull routine came to stay.

As one particularly hot and humid weekend encroached upon us, we decided to escape and seek excitement, so we dashed to our car, hastily threw in some camping supplies plus a few kids, and then shot out of town while the sun rose. We began to drive south across the prairie as fast as possible for the next six hours, until we arrived at our secret spot, the waterfall.

I am telling you, my wide-eyed listener, that this is a true state secret. Few people know of the existence of the waterfall, much less it’s whereabouts.

The southern tip of this fair state is a mish-mash of convoluted landscapes, ranging from low cypress swamps to higher areas strewn with enormous boulders. It seems that every place one goes, one meets spectacular national parks. Some have rock cliffs to scale, winding paths to hike or wondrous lakes to boat, fish or swim. Caves can be explored, canoes can be paddled and tents can be pitched with ease. There seems to be no end of things to do or sights to see, nor is there a shortage of willing volunteers.

But the waterfall remains hidden, tucked away in a far corner of one very popular park. Come now and let us go for a drive, and leave your window rolled down -- the breeze will feel great in this heat.

First, head south on the interstate. Then exit on a seldom-traveled highway and go east for a mile. Next, turn south again onto an unmarked gravel road which leads down a steep hill. At the bottom, find us a place to park in the tall weeds that grow near a shallow brook.

Finally. We can walk the rest of the way from here. And don’t bother locking the car.

Notice the dragonflies? Those skinny ones -- the iridescent ones -- I call them snake doctors. Oh, and look what lives over here in these rock pools -- tadpoles! No, come on. We can catch some of them later, plus frogs.

Let’s go look over the cliff first. Be careful, though, and don’t slip on the slicky spots.

Pretty awesome view, huh? I bet it’s thirty-five feet straight down. Yeah, people really do dive off from up here. They have to be crazy. You say you want to? I’d like to see you try.

We are standing on the edge of a solid slab of ancient stone. In front of us, a panoramic view of the deep ravine below is mostly cloaked by lots of tall trees. We can barely see a small, circular pool of water that lays below us at the bottom of the gorge, half-hidden by our ledge. Loud shouts bounce from sheer rock walls as we prepare to hike down below.

It takes some twisting and bending and some careful leaning away from the edge of the gorge in certain spots, but after following a narrow trail which meanders close to the rim, we reach a place where climbing down becomes possible. It is not much more than a vertical fissure in the cliff, and a small one, but by putting a foot there and holding on here and over there, you can inch your way down to a ledge some ten feet below. From that point, several handy depressions, possible carved there by ancestors, make the going slightly easier.

The more-daring leap the last distance, landing on a steep, leaf-littered embankment, and from there they are forced to run pell-mell down the incline before a stop can be made. Kinder sorts will lag behind to coax the anxious.

All but the children pause to collect their wits after the descent. The first things noticed, as whoops and yells from kids fade into the distance, is the stark silence, the coolness of the air, and the dim twilight. As you look around, you begin to feel as if you have entered a stone-bound fairy world filled with enchantment, and encased with verdant mosses and ferns. The filtered half-light seems to swallow up any words uttered, while a broken stick might echo sharply when stepped on, and unaccustomed peace seems to lay in all directions.

Huge trunks of fallen trees bar the way in places. Half-moons of mushrooms parade along one side, decorating the route nicely. Large monoliths of stone appear up ahead, and each one helps to support lichen on their flanks. Occasionally, one will also hold a small boy who might be seen silently perched on top, spying on adults.

The path, apparent at times, rises and falls over the canyon floor, leading us all to a final clearing set under the arms of an immense maple. Here too is a stone circle where other campfires brightened up other nights.

The cleared area has just enough room to erect two dome tents, one large and one small. They go up fast, and then kids are rounded up to gather firewood. The adults then go look for the vanished children, and collect dead limbs while doing so. This perfect camping knoll overlooks the pool under the waterfall, which from here, appears to hang from the upper cliff like thin and silvery, swaying ropes.

After all of the exploring, wading, slipping off and falling in the pool accidentally, chasing butterflies, and yelling as loud as possible is done, a fire is started and food is cooked. No matter how bad the food, it is always great when there is smoke, ash, sparks, and fireflies to deal with. Everyone then sleeps well on the floor of God’s magnificent creation.

A quick anecdote before we pack up to leave here (and do not forget to haul out your own trash).

We once arrived at our waterfall on a particularly hot day, so rather than haul all of the supplies down by foot, we decided to drop a few directly into the pool. Retrieving them would be a snap.

Let me warn you, my fearless listener: never offer a watermelon a thirty-foot drop into a pool of water. It will be a smashing fool to accept, and then the thing will never survive the trip. A cantaloupe, on the other hand, is perfectly suited for the job.

Monday, June 19, 2006

One Good Fellow Nervous

I once went to a place where peacocks roamed free. I had come because of an invitation to an expansive garden estate where a wedding would be performed later in the day; a mixed ceremony: half Christian -- half Hindi.

While I ventured out for a mid-morning stroll around the grounds to admire things, a catering crew arrived. The next thing I knew, I found my self being forced to stop and shake hands with lots of dark-eyed strangers. I nodded and smiled politely as I kept an eye on the hirelings. They themselves stayed busy transporting tray after food tray from several vans to a cool and shaded hall where rows of tables waited. Before long, the smell of exotic foods began to reach my nostrils, and that woke my stomach.

I am not one who naturally eats a lot of food, but when I do, breakfast is preferred over any other course. I had forgone that meal on this particular day, thinking to allow my little appetite to grow.

By noon I had worked myself into a slight sweat by mentally entertaining dozens of unfamiliar spices, imagining all of their last voyages, and just how happy we might all soon become.

But at one point it became too much to bear. I then discovered myself drenched in shame over my torturous self-abuse: I had wandered into the hall somehow, and stealthily examined several of the food tables without drawing undue attention. My legs shook. My stomach growled. My eyes latched on and would not let go. The spread I witnessed looked so appealing. Everything smelled too wonderful to describe. Not one thing in any of the trays was recognizable, but each morsel, every delight, all these lumps of unknown things from unknown origins beckoned to me like a haunting of coaxful Sirens. It was the worst part of my day.

Before long I began to hallucinate. Veiled dishes rose up from the table tops, and then they came over to dance with me. I became too frightened to stay after that, so I ran outside like a coward.

Near the front entry I leaned against an ornate pillar to rest as a middle-aged man worked a languid push broom around a long, looping driveway. He looked vaguely familiar at first, even with the flowing yellow robe he wore as a type of disguise. Then I realized his skin tone matched mine exactly. I took to the idea that the two of us could converse with ease if either of us would initiate the conversation, so I said hello.

He stopped sweeping and turned to look at me.

At that same moment, a terribly loud flapping noise exploded out of nowhere, and in a flash of blurred blues, a resident male peacock flew past my head, after leaving his perch on the portico roof above me. He landed with a thud on the pavement near by, and it was a most-undignified moment for us both. I could tell from the suffering look in his pride-soaked eyes that the bird was unaware of my sudden panic, or of my ravenous hunger.

He was able to recoup quicker than I, and so the creature vainly strutted off.

The man with the broom smiled. I believe I then offered to eat the ample bird, but I think the good fellow took that idea as a threat. He must have felt compelled to stand there like he did and tell me he was a proper Vegetarian, so I, in turn, felt obliged to let him know I was a practicing Presbyterian. He soon went back to his first calling, but he kept giving me nervous looks, so I finally left him in peace.

After a time the fancy proceedings got under way, and after more time elapsed, it came to a merciful end. I was never so happy. At last, we could all feast.

I moved along at a slow pace as I stood in line, holding a tray, smiling and nodding and pointing to all the edibles, and I smiled even more to watch my plate become weighted down with such delectable goodies. Out on a veranda I found a quiet spot to sit, and after making myself comfortable, I began to sample my collection.

Oh, my.

Goodness gracious me.

Oh, no.

My stars, what is that?

Each lump, each rolled thing, each mound of odd stuff was honestly tried and methodically convicted on the spot. Before long I wanted to hang a cook. I looked around to see what the others were doing, but every man, woman and child seemed to be enjoying themselves greatly, which really bothered me.

The one single thing on my plate left to test looked suspiciously like chocolate, which will always do as a desert. I had saved it for that purpose, but when I bit into the thing, the good people next to me began to scatter. It might have had something to do with the sickened look on my face, or maybe the sweeper had informed everyone about my habits.

But after discreetly disposing of the surplus evidence I had, I left the estate behind to go seek a fast-food place, which I found not too far away.

Funny how delicious even simple fare will taste when a man is truly hungry.

Haiku to Caution


Sunday, June 18, 2006

This is My Father

My father is called Hamilton Allen Tippins. He was born the year the airplane first flew, and he grew up in Savannah, Georgia. As a young man he learned to play the coronet, the accordion and the six-stringed guitar. He went on to woo a younger woman with all three of these instruments, and soon after that, married her.

Throughout his life he admired the complete works of Mark Twain as well as the stirring notes written by John Philips Sousa. He liked God Almighty, but disliked mankind in general, although I can not recall him ever saying a hateful word about any man, other than Hitler, or maybe his half-brother, Willy.

My father studied the game of chess, and many evenings he sat at a board, meddling with the troubles of two opposing armies, all the while puffing away on a favored tobacco-filled pipe. He kept several around at all times. He preferred using Prince Albert from the red can, but would shred a lone cigarette in a pinch, and then mildly complain to us all about the low-quality taste as he waved the hand that held a blackened match.

During the late 60’s, he purchased a hookah for his office, and then displayed the peculiar device in a prominent position in one corner. Sometimes, and with a twinkling eye, he would produce a package of a commercially-blended tobacco called Pot Porri. Insuring that a customer caught sight of the bag, he would then announce that he was about to smoke some good pot.

He liked saying that beer is full of vitamin P.

He was an adventurous man, my father, as well as a dreamer. I miss him deeply, especially today.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Haiku to Comfort

A fan cools me fine
But a pirate with night sweats?
(Yo, blow the man down)

The Unraveling

The idea of a family reunion caught fire with Douglas Jennings. He is a most-delightfully kind and cheerful person, this brother-in-law of mine. He was born the fifth of six children, and aptly called the Last One during the first few years of his life. That allegation suited everyone until an unscheduled smaller brother came along. The new baby then became known as the Very Last One.

Douglas has been married now for a respectable number of years, and works steady as a commercial artist. He and his beautiful wife have produced two fine daughters together. Both girls are meticulous and brilliant like their mother, and yet each one is as pleasant and gentle as their father is. This lovely family of four now resides near-by in a new home they just recently purchased. His family and mine are close, and we all stay in touch.

Douglas slowed down to take a breather during their hectic moving-in stage. He then looked around his up-dated space while wondering, I have plenty of room now; what if we held that over-due Jennings family reunion here?

He quietly proposed the notion to his wife as they worked outside one weekend, planting new shrubs and spring flowers. She then thought out loud to her husband, “Why, we could rent a large tent and set it up by those trees over there. The table for the food would be in the shade, and everyone could enjoy the nice weather. But we are going to need lots of lawn chairs, and some of those large umbrellas.” Soon her dark eyes started to dance and sparkle as the fire the couple so affectionately kindled began to grow vigorously.

Within days a wild inferno had spread itself halfway across the country, reaching as far away as the deserts of Arizona. There, a young pair of over-heated inhabitants quickly invested cold cash for two air fares. Then the flame lit and ignited in two separate places up in Michigan. Schedules from that state seemed to feed the blaze as more arrangements were made, and so the conflagration increased.

Sparks jumped next down to the southern end of Illinois where hot whirlwinds began to twirl and twist about. Before the week was done, parts of Florida heard the news and wanted in.

While his wife placed telephone calls to local rental centers and caterers, but before any shopping excursions could take place, Douglas pulled out a calculator to recheck the math. He then shared this remarkable piece of information with his wife. They both carefully studied the total amount before deciding on a specific portion. Next, they allowed each of the far-flung family to know of this sum and how each person could help defray costs. This minor fee (major prudence on their part), they both agreed, would keep the hosts solvent only if everyone in the clan kept to the main road, finance-wise.

Ruination then came storming out of the woods, dressed as a cheap twenty-dollar bill.

One of the sons had planned on driving a van filled with little Jennings all the way from southern Illinois to the big meet. But after he counted heads to be transported and did the multiplication, he changed his mind. When Arizona found out, dominos began to topple as flight plans crashed. Michigan slammed its doors next while Florida went silent. Only a faint trace of dust now floats above the old homestead in down-state Illinois.

Douglas sounded almost relieved as he relayed the news to us over the phone.

“You guys want to come over next weekend? Just bring a few chairs and maybe a small salad.”

Haiku to Sanity

I have loud grackles
Confession is the first step
To recovery

Friday, June 16, 2006

A Quick Spin

Night sweats: how metaphorical. Now I suddenly relate to this enormous, wild and unhealthy planet I have been riding for my entire life.

I manage to stay in my own orbit with no problem. I have many, many neighbors who lead similar lives. There is some slight evidence of scars left on my surface, resulting from an occasional rock hurled in my distant past, but those have healed and are almost forgotten.

Up on top of this massive place, around the northern pole, not much survives. I am sparsely afflicted, too. But as the traveler heads south, vegetation and other life forms crop up in abundance. Around where Canada starts, fir trees grow thick. Whenever I gaze at myself in a mirror, I fail to see my own corresponding Canada, due to a thicket of fur.

Just below, the consuming neck cries out to be scratched. Soon the entire body wants the terrible itching to cease altogether, or better yet, for it to be vanquished from the world. What sorts of life forms are taking over here? Why won't they be stilled?

Go south of that troublesome border where modest rumblings can be heard, and from there, laborious issues are dealt with on a daily basis. But this is where the analogy breaks down: I happen to have plenty of untapped gas in storage.

Still, I have quakes to deal with periodically. Eruptions come and go, unexplained and unexpected. There have been moments when my axis certainly wobbled. I suspect small aliens landed on me once, for they left tiny crop circles behind, which I showed to my friends (okay, that claim is false, but I did fall asleep one time while wearing a Levi jacket, so I apologize).

Drop down below my equatorial regions, and things become very foreign, even to my wayfaring eye. I rarely visit down there.

I happened to peer over my shoulder one day as I walked away from a mirror, and caught an accidental glimpse of where Australia might be located, were I the planet Earth. It was not a pretty sight down there. I imagine the Australians would prefer it if I stood on my head when I spoke, so that it could be accurately said that my words were now emanating from a discrete but different hole.

Oh, well. This personal version of global warming causes me enough sleepless nights as it is, so I won’t worry too much about their wild accusations.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Out of Portugal

Portugal. I have always liked the sound and shape of that far-away land, from early on. Portugal remains singular in my mind for a fact that I never had any desire to visit any other country. My dear, mysterious Portugal. How be you?

Some Portuguese there have colorful fishing boats. I recall admiring their hulks from the moment I saw pictures. Grand forms, brilliant colors and exciting lines. Mouth-watering, attractive shapes, those crafts. Another feature I liked about Portugal is the odd architecture.

I am attracted to things like strange houses and working boats. Allow me those, a good pen and pads of paper, and then leave me be. I would stay happy all day.

Fortunately for these warm Portuguese people, I will never take the trip. By the second day of my stay, I am positive I would slip and grouse and thus spoil any future offers of friendship. Knowing only skimpy facts about Portugal, I must only imagine how that spoilage might take place.

I wager they don’t speak my language well in Portugal. My guess is that they eat lots of soups and cheeses. I can confidently construe a shortage of grits. My tongue never developed a taste for wine, fine or otherwise, so that would cause trouble. I do like seeing homes stacked up in curious ways. They can look delightful on paper, but such scenes mean noise and traffic, plus I lose my way easily. If I were to discover Gypsies staged nearby; I would report the entire bunch. Boat owners can act hostile toward outsiders; I am doubly troubled by foreign policemen. Are any of these locals fond of dog as a food source? I do not know the answer to that, but I fear to learn the outcome.

I conclude at this point by envisioning fruitless explanations told to swarthy, scowling men over many subjects, along with an inability to reach a ticket agent soon enough.

What, I now wonder, ever possessed me to want to come to this mad part of the world?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Haiku to Fear

My doggerel is
So bad it swallows cats whole
So watch it, buddy

Saturday, June 10, 2006

It Can Get as Hot as

I am about as current as a Franklin woodstove. In case you never met one of those cast-iron affairs, here are some snaphots: they are not what you could call air-tight. They are drafty, creaky, cumbersome and old-fashioned things, and they tend to crack easily in the worst spots. None have ever once been rightly accused of being an efficient heat source, to my knowledge.

A Franklin stove is guaranteed to look quaint at first glance, but one will later learn these units consume lots and put out little. They are nothing short of a bad investment. Although they can and do glow red-hot for short periods of time (one might even force a small room to become briefly unbearable for an average-sized person, or an old, large cat), the things require constant attention, or fires will die.

And then there is the daily ash-disposal problem to contend with. Yes, unfortunately, what first seems to be a nifty idea fast becomes a smelly, stinking, dirty drudge for Mr. or Mrs. Homeowner. A person can get heated perfectly well by trying to keep up with an old Franklin.

So why am I writing about these particular stoves during the second week of what seems to be a perfect start to a near-perfect summer? The comparison seems fair enough: Franklin stoves never made good sense in any season.

Plus I feel sort of puffy, which can sort of describe a Franklin. I also have wobbly legs; I leak, cough and sputter a lot. If I could be moved out to the curb and left there, some fool would stop to load me in their trunk and drive away, dreaming they had found a treasure.

One of my sisters held a commercial position that, for several years, forced the legal system of Texas to pour vast sums of money into her figurative lap. To me, at the time, those sums seemed far beyond cosmic.

She once called me up on her telephone on one of the coldest days during the month of January, and she proceeded to convince me (using many of her professional words) to come along with her for a weekend jaunt up to the mountains of north-east New Mexico. There, she threatened me sweetly, she would pay out huge amounts of her excessive monies to have narrow boards bound securely to my very-wide feet, and then pay some other minion to haul me up this elevation she had in mind. From there, I would slide back down the incline on these two boards.

It made first-rate sense on the telephone. Easy money. Flat boards. Snow. Gravity. This was all her idea, understand, but even I somehow convinced me that I could do everything she was suggesting. At the time, however, I thought the earth was the shape of a young trapezoid.

We arrived in the small town of Red River soon after dark. Snow fell gently from above as generous and soft flakes. I heard the word powder being whispered continually during that evening. She and I later took seats in a crowded saloon where we listened to a brash singer named Duncan Tuck, who distracted us until well after midnight. He swore his name had nothing to do with any known ski position. That was the funniest thing I heard said that night.

The next morning my dear sister dragged us to a favored restaurant for an early meal. I remember suddenly coming awake at our table by glancing out a large window next to my chair. I almost pulled a neck muscle, straining to see the top of this imposing heap of a rock which emerged from the ground right across the street from where we sat. As my forehead pressed hard on the cold, plate glass window, and as my eyes searched in vain for the summit, I remember proclaiming something that questioned the sanity of the both of us. My little sister smiled pleasantly as she calmly stirred her black coffee round and round and round. She displays such a vile smile at times, this sugary, generous sister of mine.

Looking back, I can vouch that for once in my life, wisdom tapped on my shoulder and I heeded her. Yes sir, I spent the rest of that morning learning how to ski over at the embarrassing bunny hill for beginners. If you take a yardstick and lay it flat on the floor, and then insert a fist under one raised end, you might get an idea of the slope, or pitch of this hill. But I came away amazed at how much I learned there.

Even more amazing was that I felt confident enough to leave the safety of that gentle hill behind. Around mid-morning, I saw and took a path which, according to a sign, led to the main ski lift. For the next four exhilarating minutes (more or less) I slid along like a professional, silent and at relative ease.

Powder snow, huh, I thought? I like this stuff a lot.

How fortunate. As I slid to an almost-perfect stop near the crowded lift, my sister and her entourage of old friends all shushed up at once, arriving to see my cool entrance. Her eyes lit up at her brother who wore an over-sized grin with pride. Her group and I then gathered together (some congratulating my completing the lessons; some eyeing my faded Levis with silent contempt) before, en masse, they suddenly whooshed over to wait in line for the long ride up. I whooshed in right behind them, unable to shake my grin.

Two by two, I watched colorfully-dressed skiers take seats on approaching lift chairs. I, being an odd number (who wore civilian attire), happily went as a single on my first ride up this-is-one-really-huge-mountain. Too bad I had to go last.

Sister stood at the top with her camera at the ready. I stood up to dismount my swing seat and promptly spilled off the platform like a gentleman. Then I slid down hard, landing my dry bottom on wet slush. My torso then dashed down the incline, racing toward a small crowd, all the while performing several circles for their entertainment. It was wonderful. My attention stayed on my two ski tips, which managed to amuse both me and our witnesses by clacking and banging against themselves in a loud, polyrhythmic fashion. I recall howling laughs coming from somewhere, along with several pictures snapped by that evil woman. I felt rather famous.

No matter, a voice cried. We are way too high to be upset. There is only one way down from here, son, and there they go now. You better follow, and be quick about it!

It all became a blur afterwards, but I did just that. I managed to locked on visually to a bright-colored jacket that rode a pair of skis which danced hypnotically in front of me, and whatever that shape and those skis did, I copied. At the bottom, at the end of the run, my guide came to a halt. All heads then turned to see me also stopping mere feet away, and each one of those seasoned skiers, including my so-gracious sister, gasped and gawked as I stood there and casually stomped a bit of snow off one ski. It was a lovely moment to live through.

So what does any of this have to do with Franklin stoves? Considerably. Summer has settled in here at the edge of the swamp, and turned hot, so I felt like going skiing. I am most happy now to report back that, despite my best efforts, nothing broke. Should we try some delicious cocoa now?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Ant Artic

It is not enough to be a crazy individual; I also have a few humans dubbed as friends who assist me occasionally. One and I sat discussing the life cycle of another, and then much later, at some point between a unbridled night-sweat and an early cup of coffee, I got this urge to compose. I hereby now dedicate the following lines to my frond-friendly Dicksonia and my loosely-geared Gyro.

I went to an Artic picnic
But ants had beat me there
So I went and searched for several days
To discover me a polar bear

All I found was a howling wind
And not one bear I could call my friend
I stood and stared at outer space
With a big beach towel wrapped around my face
Thinking, this is it, then I’m undone
And I am out of here

I took my time and troubles
And packed them all to leave
Then I wiped my runny nose which froze
On the cuff of a very long sleeve

I left behind those Artic ants
Before they could move inside my pants
Who, trying to avoid this bitter chill
Might climb above the Big Knee Hill
And cause me to yell and draw a mob
Just great. Now I feel a tickle

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

As if I Needed A Reason to Nap

The planners outnumber me now. Was this their original idea?

My wife is a planner. She plans everything, even short trips. Buying milk for this rambling cavehold will require several spur-of-the-moment meetings among almost all members, and sometimes a phone call or two helps her decide. She plans these parties. She plans baths. She even plans laundry. She bothers me constantly with her maddening plans.

I am not much of a planner, as you might have guessed. I pretty much fall out of bed everyday, totally surprised to even be. I had no idea that would happen when I went to sleep the night before. Honestly, I never thought about it once. I usually sit around afterwards, dazed, shaking my head and wondering what is going on, until my planner of a wife tells me her coffee is ready. She plans that, too. Really. She really does. She prepares a coffeemaker the night before, measuring, adding, filling. I go insane at all these details.

From family stories my mother has spread around, I have to assume that I was never a planned event. She, my dear mother, often said my arrival surprised them both, her and my dear father. My eldest sister was said to be more insulted than surprised to see me come along. I do believe my mother was right.

She, my young wife, comes from a large family of big planners. When we met, I had few things stored in my backpack. Her mother squinted her two eyes when she first saw me, and then began to make plans. Right away I could hear cogs and see smoke. If I had been much of a planner-type, I think I might have planned a quick escape then and there. But I got out-planned, or plan-hypnotized, or plan-tamed with the whole damn process. I got caught up in planning all these plans.

I recall at one point dancing gleefully at a dawn of realization. All of my soon-to-be brothers-in-law (five in total, and each one planned but for the last, I am told) made plans to attend the wedding. They even planned on wearing similar suits. That made me aware I had no such thing. That fact caused a fury of planning that lasted for two incredible weeks. I watched as one caught up inside a whirlwind as stitches were sewn, phones dialed, invitations mailed, food discussed, flowers sought and flowers bought.

In the meantime, one of the younger brothers and I made plans to score an amount of weed. Yes, I was becoming slightly hooked on making plans. Rue the day, you say? Rue the day?

Funny you say that. My future father-in-law is named Rue.

Rue Edward Jennings turns out to be a relatively famous plan follower. Apart from having been a cook for the US Army (which certainly required lots of plans), he also took part in one of the most heavily-planned events to take place during World War Two. He and his unit left the safe parts of North Africa and flew to Sicily. At a properly planned moment, the entire unit jumped out of fine, working airplanes. Imagine that.

Then after landing on Sicilian soil, they marched up the length of the Italian boot to get cheered at. Soon England called them over. Rue went there for a temporary rest and recuperation prior to D-Day, but then stuck to hush-hushed plans for him and his buddies to drop by Belgium, via the silk parachutes. (I tried to discover if he got to meet Hitler. One of his younger boys once asked a more-important question with the widest of eyes: And did you die, dad?)

So, with their adventurous victory done and over, he and his new bride, Bernadine, made plans to have a large family in the middle of a prairie. He then planned on working hard to keep them all fed well, and he did a fair job of it, as far as I know.

Me, I never make any plans. I never once intended to be anywhere here on this earth, as far as I can recall. Next thing I know, I am attending some country school, barefoot and winning all the marbles. During high school I got to wear shoes, and in the tenth grade, I impetuously quit that experiment to go join the Marines. Unplanned and unscheduled, every bit of it. But I did take the shoes along.

So that is some history you might not know. Today, I have a young son in the Air Force. Joel, 21, plans to attend college after his tour is up. Yes, he accomplished his goal to finish high school, so what could stop him? He recently came home for a short visit over Memorial Day. Uh-huh. It too was planned in advance for several months. His mother, my younger wife, then drove him, (planned; do I have to tell you everything?) along with two teenagers, half-way across the continental United States to deliver him safely to his unit commander in Virginia, who has more plans, we are sure.

She called me last night to say she plans on leaving in the morning to drive her and the two teens back to the cave here in Hoohooville. I think she wants me to clean up, or maybe organize a parade, but I can’t find the rule book anywhere.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Someone Told Me They Had the Blahs

Part of being a man is that compelling notion of explaining things to others. Right at this very moment I want to stop here and carefully explain to you exactly what I meant by that opening shot, but that job will have to wait until after I explain (to my satisfaction) from where the thought originated in the first place. Nonetheless, hold on.

Then there is the procrastinating. Or is it just me? Am I really the laziest man on the planet Earth, like she said I was, or are there others out there too busy explaining their whereabouts for the last few days to give a troubled brother a hand? Fire me a flare, men. Send up smoke. I am not all that particular.

Part of being a man is having feelings of doubt. And naturally, I doubt most people even want to know this much info. Let us press on, shall we? I have no agenda on the fire, nor am I a homosexual. Care for some coffee? A scotch, perhaps? Nice shirt there, by the way.

Let’s be honest. As long as you are not a doctor, I might be able to trust you. In fact, come to think of it, the higher up the educational food chain you are, the less I will probably like you. You have a doctorate? Pff! I have had boils you could never adequately explain. You wrote a thesis once? Hah! I drove a Hudson. Match that, if you can. You went to where? Listen, I went to Juarez before it was even heard of.

It is amazing how much we forget. Ok, how much I forget. And now I forgot where this was supposed to go.

Also, I used to know a French term that would work well here, but it had more than four letters.

Another Shot Fired


I like riding the bus. My first year of school, I had to walk a half-mile. My second year I did the same. The third year of that experiment, a bus began stopping in front of our place, so I hopped on, took a seat and rode to school on it.

I do have mixed feelings about those years. But later in my life, and as an inexperienced teenager, I climbed steps that took me aboard a different sort of bus. This one guaranteed adventure. It provided odors not to be found anywhere in my normal world. It put out unusual and heart-racing sounds. Strange activities often occurred. Distractions aplenty happened. Odd food. Intrigue. Fun. This bus came only in grey and not yellow. Grey was the color of a running hound shown on the side of this particular bus.

The passengers (all human, but there, similarities end) who rode along came in many sizes. Several colors. Differing destinations. Each one worthy of examinations, however brief. Some would return my curious glances with scowls. Most acted as if they never noticed me (my parents had taught their children that it was impolite to stare, but who listens to parents much anymore?). A few of these travelers might smile back, I discovered. I had learned, only after a few awkward and unpleasant trips on one of these new machines, to eyeball the crew while walking the aisle: connect with a smiling face before sitting beside one and the ride invariably goes nicely. Nice memories.

I presently have a bad case of summertime flew. It began on Memorial day of 2006. Almost 700,000 good lives lost since the times of the American Revolution, all so that my local friends and I could gather outside on my deck to gossip in peace. No one mentioned the ghosts that others entertain until I brought them up. Not surprisingly, that. I served a few tours honorably; none of my propinquity did. Remembrance was not my main worry that day, though. My summer had begun to fly.

She officially had her wings and she beats them rapidly.

I was content to sit back and note: this gathering, this habitual lighting of charcoal, this pulling chairs into a small circle and retelling every tired story we can dredge up from our internal depths, jarred loose by other accounts of tired stories from other depths, is what we do. We. Us. You. Me. The pygmies. The Incas. Probably the Canadians as well, but who really knows what goes on up there? It’s dark, cold and some speak French, I hear.

But stories. We can all tell them.

Then a sobering thought did occur.

I admit that I purposefully waste a lot of my time. I do not go around confessing normally. This concept is unpopular all throughout the fields and swamps I frequent, but it is true that I do. However.

I leaned back to relax in my favorite canvas deck chair, listening as my brother-in-law Doug Jennings told stories about Hitler I had never heard before. And then suddenly, a thought dawned on me. It hit me during a sip of the tart beer-and-lime beverage which likes me so much: that my entire afternoon and evening was now progressing exactly like another favorite of my time-wasters, and that is, computer chat rooms.

I am not real sure if that is the proper term or not. Having typed that, I continue on obliviously.

The only difference I could see was that these talking heads gathered on the deck in front of me had human faces on display. Faces that could be read, to a certain degree. Each had a pair of expressive eyes. Animated mouths, one each. Some of the young ones wore facial paint. Small amounts of jewelry flashed about. Heads which nodded or shook did so properly. All very life-like too. I then rose to go find another cold drink. I found myself chuckling during the entire quest.

I don’t know much. But I do know how people throw stones. There was a saying about folk living in glass houses I heard when very young. Try telling that one to a child to get his mind worked up.

Now, I went to church as a small boy, like most good people. Often, well, sometimes, usually between whispering to or pulling at one of my other siblings, or maybe as I raised up my head for a moment while drawing crude pictures in the margins of my bulletin, I might hear the pastor go on about “those irate Catholics down the street”, or “those confounded Methodist up that way”, or some other faulty denomination that got under his skin during the previous week. It sort of gave me the impression, from the timbre of his voice and his theatrical arm-waving, that he understood what he was talking about. He was much larger than me in size, so I considered myself lucky to find pencils in the pews. You can only aggravate a younger sister for so long before people notice.

Doug made some swell points on Stalin as I sat back down and popped the cap off the cold one. Then someone pointed and laughed at the phrase printed across my shirt. That surprised me. Monday made the second day I had worn the thing, and they just now see?

“I am blogging this”, it reads.

Not much to blog about, I thought as I smiled and jammed another lime inside the mouth of the beer. Just that one small comparison.

Oh, and that riding busses is a lot like traveling through life, or relaxing at a computer keyboard, typing nonsensical things to other chat mates. Enjoy your day. Try not to fall or hurt anyone. And clean up that mess there!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Where is My Coffee?

I do not deserve this keyboard. My wife works hard, and she picked the item out all by herself. She also paid for it with her own cash. Yet I pretty much own it. I certainly do not deserve her; she discovered me. She found me sitting all by myself on a beach, playing contentedly in the sand, like a child, and this occurred well over twenty summers ago (I even have a photograph to prove this claim). And she, being the naively honest person that she is, truly does not deserve to be burdened with the likes of me, for I am a born thief and a fool.

Yes, I steal. I have stolen before. I stole a few insignificant things when I was very young, and when caught, tried to lie my way out to escape the stern looks on faces that still haunt me in my later years. As an adult, I learned to steal less-noticeable things. I continually got caught. Now I try to limit myself to the taking of ideas. I might talk more about the art of lying in a while; for I have also learned to be cagey.

I shall now attempt an explanation before someone inquires of my health. In the short time it has taken to type the previous two paragraphs, I have experienced a hot flash. Somewhere in the middle of the first paragraph my feet became uncomfortably chilled, so I reached for an old flannel shirt I keep handy. Toward the end of the second paragraph my back and forehead broke out together in sweat, so I promptly removed the shirt. My frayed friend never complains. I try not to, but fail more often than I like to admit.

I am a sick, sick man. I know this to be a fact, and for this I do not need photographs. I love mayhem. I love hearing about mayhem. I love watching mayhem. I sure love listening to mayhem, as well. Ever heard of Spike Jones? He had a band back in the 1940s. There is some of what I call the most-awful mayhem.

I have no conscious when it comes to seeing others suffer. No, I get excited and lean in closer if I am sitting down, or else run to where the crowd stands gaping, and then wedge myself in among them until I can gape myself silly. Nothing like a good gawk to fuel my fires. That incident might last me for decades and provide unlimited opportunities to retell the ordeal to another sick person. Trust me when I say that there are lots of others like me.

This, my second cup of coffee, makes me think of the gallons of tears shed by innocent people who strive to eke out a living harvesting , packing, selling and shipping coffee beans. It tastes less than perfect, so I want to lash someone. Who is to blame for this particular pathetic brew? I want to see heads roll.

(Hello again, shirt)

Children historically disobey their parents. I cannot prove this assertion right away. I think I might be able to do so, if pressured long enough. For the now, I am totally satisfied with not only the look but the tone of that statement, so let us move on. They really, really do. My parents loved to go camping. On each trip, we three children were reminded to leave our campsite in better shape than we found it. Sound advice. Who likes arriving at a campsite where uneducated ingrates left an unsightly mess behind? How rude! How human! How about staying home next time, buddy? Or how about picking up your beer cans or orange peels or those…whoa! Those are disgusting!

(Goodbye again, shirt)

Well, mom. Dad. Look at the mess I am leaving behind me now. I am so sorry. Yes, I regret it, yet I can not do much about it. There is no way I am cleaning up that. It is one unsightly mess, too. Just look at it. Almost makes me proud to think that I accomplished something this huge.

I have somehow managed to populate my very own part of the planet with six additional males of my species. I do not recall planning a one of those events, so I must be a natural genius. Nonetheless. They each look like me, somewhat. They all walk fine. Each one talks fairly well. Three have unfamiliar accents. None are missing any major parts. They all seem to understand the same language that I speak, and all have decent appetites. Three have since married, and have found similar ways to mess up their own areas by producing more sons and a few daughters. They did not stop there, no. But that is a subject they must speak to on their own time. Right now, this is my mess.

I could complain until the cows come home. Right away, that reminds me that I do now have cows, and at the current price of cold milk, I regret that fact. We drink up to almost two barrels a day. Lifting a gallon of milk feels that heavy to me. But I cannot stop the consumption here. It is out of my control. Do not suggest a shotgun; do not give me ideas.

People think owning cows would be pleasant. They are wrong. Forget that insane plan. You have no idea. Think flies. Picture flies so thick they coat a screen door with their masses. Spray the lot and kill them, and while they lay dying, more happily take their place in a heartbeat. All of this is due to cows, my friend. Cows crap everywhere, and then flies lay eggs there. No, if you want cows, get chickens. The chickens will keep down the fly population by devouring the little baby flies. We called them maggots in Texas.

Did that word bother you? Were you eating just now? I should have warned you, but I am busy fighting these damn sweats, plus my gut is growling and making me more uncomfortable than usual. Maybe I better apologize. I wonder, would that change things? Maybe I should go and apologize to some others for the messes I have made in this lifetime. I tried doing that once, but it seemed to irritate me more, seeing how happy people became to hear just how sorry I was. Life is so confusing.

I used to give a damn. What does that even mean, I have to stop and ask? And I am not real sure I know the answer. I think I gave a damn about me more than anything. I don’t mean that to sound heartless; just honest. I never thought too much about the environment. There was plenty of evidence showing we had plenty. I never worried about baby seals. I never went there to beat on them, either. I used to hear (who didn’t?) about starving Chinese kids. Then I saw pictures on TV of Chinese hoards. Well, thousands, maybe. I know, I know. TV can trick the eye. But it helped me stop worrying when I threw out scraps of food.

What do I know, really? Not much. But I do know that I don’t deserve this keyboard, and that is the truth.