From the edge of the swamp

Location: marengo, il, United States

Saturday, November 28, 2009

the quest for fire

this year we kept our thanksgiving celebration small, keeping life simple. the wife ordered a pre-cooked turkey from a local supermarket, along with an ample amount of sweet potatoes, an order of stuffing and a tub of gravy.

she made cranberry sauce herself, at my insistence. thanksgiving cannot be right without the homemade sauce.

she and our son and i then chowed down together, and afterward, us adults napped during the afternoon, according to custom.

the next day we had friends stop by to enjoy left-overs, as well as each others company.

lenora and her three children, arielle, josiah and hanna arrived, along with the wife's younger brother, doug. we all had a good time and swapped some great family stories.

now i have a good friend who lives way down south of the equator in tasmania, australia. i've known paul for years, and we talk a lot on our computers.

since he and i share an affinity for hot, spicy foods, he is always recommending new things for me to try, and i return the favor.

over the years, we have both sent each other packages through the mail of exotic food products. i once shipped him some chewy american candies that he had never heard of, which featured a bubblegum center (mostly for his three boys to try -- they were close to my son's ages at the time); he in turn mailed me a package filled with different kinds of tim tams for my family to sample.

i had never heard of tim tams before. i soon learned that they were an australian chocolate-covered cake-like roll which tasted pleasing to my tongue. he also sent me a jar of vegemite, a dark-brown smelly sandwich spread that i found to be inedible by most civilized people, including myself.

(i threatened to send him a jar of peanut butter in retaliation, but i decided that might spoil our friendship.)

about a week ago, while on-line with paul, i described a quick meal i threw together on occasion that he should try. here is the recipe.

first, lightly brown a couple of handfuls of broken tortilla chips in a skillet over medium heat, using a small amount of canola oil. then add at least 3 scrambled eggs to the mix, stirring together. after loading the cooked meal on a plate, cover with a goodly amount of pace picante sauce.

he asked me what kind of sauce that was. i replied that it was the best-tasting, hottest salsa on the market, and was made and bottled in paris, texas.

paul replied, "way to go!", voicing approval.

a few minutes later, he asked if i had ever tried habanero sauce.

I had heard of habanero peppers before. another australian acquaintance who drove a truck for a living (hauling what he claimed were the meanest cows in the world across some of the most desolate roads on earth) spoke highly of the hot peppers and recommended them to anyone brave enough to eat one.

but i had never tasted them or the sauce, so i said no.

paul quickly sent me a website where the product was sold. i showed the site to my wife which included a picture of a jar of the sauce. she said she had seen it in stores here, so i asked her get me some, which she did.

so as our holiday guests arrived here last night, i could barely hold still.

as soon as josiah walked into the room, i invited him to try some of my new habenero sauce. i pointed to the container that sat on the kitchen table, along side other common snacks.

(i sampled the red sauce earlier, and was anxious to see if josiah, who also loves hot and spicy things, could survive the heat.)

he willingly dipped a single tortilla chip into the jar and took a small bite. the rest of us stood by, watching and waiting and on high alert.

it tastes different, he said, after a moment. he looked pleased as he kept chewing.

his sister arielle took pictures on her cell phone, capturing the action.

then suddenly josiah's eyes widened. we all leaned forward with intense interest.

with sudden gusto, the lad let out a loud and entertaining howl.


that shortly became the end of the experiment with the lively habanero sauce, after josiah cooled down, and then our company went to munching on more-familiar snacks for the rest of the evening.

but now i must find another use for this product.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

thanksgiving, west texas-style

on this day, in 1956, my buddy and i got arrested by the police, ruining the day for everyone around us. here is what happened.

my best friend's mom and my mom had gotten together early that morning in the kitchen at my house to begin cooking up the traditional holiday meal for both of our families. in less than an hour, my pal and i found ourselves both banished from the room.

"you two are in the way of the cooks. shoo! get out of here!"

two houses away laid a railroad track spur. on it sat an empty rail car with its side doors opened wide. he and i hopped aboard the car, sat down in the doorway, and with our pair of legs dangling, sat there trying unsuccessfully to light and smoke a single cigarette which kenneth had pilfered from his mother's purse. we soon gave that up as too difficult and no fun, so we looked for something better to try.

eastward from where we were arose a huge landmark for our town, famous throughout the panhandle of texas: plainview's own harvest queen grain elevator -- the largest collection of silos in the region, so it was said.

on its many rounded sides hung tall and tempting iron ladders, stretching to the sky. kenneth and i agreed it would be fun to climb the edifice, so we took off, heading in that direction.

twenty minutes later, we circled the building, looking for easy access, but none of the ladders were even close to the ground. we failed before getting started.

disappointed but undaunted, we then noticed the city water tower which stood nearby. one-third the height of the harvest queen, it seemed puny by comparison, but it did look like a target we could manage.

the only barrier was a surrounding chain-link fence, which he and i scaled effortlessly. a short run after that and we were climbing at last. i went up first while my pal followed.

the day was sunny and mild when we started.

about half-way up the tower, i noticed the wind began to blow steadily, so i hung on to each rung for dear life, but kept on going. but by the time we reached the top (rather, a narrow walkway which encircled the tower), the temperature had dropped dramatically. we then stood there while clinging to the guardrail, both shivering while gazing down on the town.

shortly, kenneth pointed to a speck on the ground directly below us.

"see that man down there? look how he is waving at us."

so we both waved back at him. what a friendly guy.

but he kept flailing his arms nonstop, which suddenly began to worry us.

"what's he want? he looks upset about something, the way he's acting. i think he wants us to climb down right now."

so we began the slow and foreboding descent.

at the bottom, the excited waving man, who immediately identified himself as an official from the city water department, angrily hauled us both off in his sedan to deposit we young criminals at the downtown police station.

so there we sat and sweated on a wooden bench for several hours, not talking to each other but staring at the floor and expecting the worst.

the hours crept by until our parents showed up, all wearing dreadful looks on their faces. then after a descriptive explanation of our risky trespassing exploits by the police, we two were relieved to be released into their custody.

but as i remember things, the remainder of that day was not a very thankful one for either kenneth or me.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

men say, no go, bwana. men say, ju-ju

when i recently mentioned tarzan the ape man as one of my heroes, i forgot about another character i much admired called jungle jim (starring johnny weissmuller), along with the actor johnny sheffield, who played the leading role in "bomba the jungle boy".

sheffield also played "boy", tarzan's young son, in some of the later tarzan movies.

what brought this to my mind today was bits of the dialogue i still recall from back then.

one particular word they used in the script was "umgawa". the authentic-sounding "african" word seemed to appear throughout their movies, and as i learned, could mean anything from "get down", "stop!", "go away" or "watch out! the elephants are coming!".

i could understand the meanings with no problem at all.

i also bought into the excitement at the time, and got down low in my theater seat to see what might happen next.

another phrase always occurred after an arduous trek through the thick jungle undergrowth. heavily-ladened african natives followed after their rifle-toting white leaders, while in the background, the beat of native drums played, increasingly growing louder and louder.

suddenly the troupe came upon a human skull, mounted on a stick close to the trail.

the drumming came to a stop.

then the men threw off their burdens and began chattering excitedly among themselves.

a spokesman for the workers then approached the white leader with the memorable line,

"men say no go, bwana. men say ju-ju."

that meant danger ahead, i assumed, and a problem for the remainder of the plot.

of course, the white man never ever listened to reason.

sort of reminds me of me.

Friday, November 20, 2009

hoppy and the electric knife

i had lots of movie heroes to admire, as a child who lived in southern georgia during the 1940s. our parents were not poor people, but thrifty folk, so as a result there were few toys to be had in our house, or other worldly pleasures.

but one in particular was the movie theater in the close-by town of claxton. the price of admission was a nickle, and we kids went there often.

on saturdays, the tos theater would feature movies starring roy rogers and dale evans, or gene autry, lash la rue, buck rogers or tarzan the ape man, and then one of my favorites of all times, the cowboy, hopalong cassidy.

the man wore a black outfit, including his hat. in most westerns at the time, only bad guys wore all black.

but he rode a white horse named topper, and was an absolute good guy, taming the wild west with great skill. i loved this guy.

one weekend, i got to travel to savannah where i attended a matinee for a huge crowd of children. hopalong cassidy himself made a personal appearance that day, and i was forever hooked on the man after that. why couldn't all adults be like him?

somehow, somewhere, at some point in my childhood, i came into possession of my first pocket knife. it was a real treat at the time, being one of the few store-bought toys i had ever owned.

emblazoned on one side of the black, plastic handles was a depiction of hoppy himself, riding high atop his famous steed. the wondrous cowboy swung a lariat in one hand while topper reared up on his hind legs.

i could not wait for the moment to use that knife in some heroic way.

in a barn next to our house, a black rope hung from the rafters. it was a little too long to be of good use. over a foot of it lay on the cement flooring, dragging the ground, simply going to waste.

i liked to swing on the stiff rope at times, pretending to be tarzan himself, but the excess which scraped the floor beneath my feet bothered me. it seemed to be perfectly ripe as the first target of my brand-new weapon.

always a barefoot child, i opened the shiny blade and began sawing away at the black, hardened rope, hurriedly wanting to be done with the task.

as i remember what happened next, some stranger, some outlaw, perhaps, sneaked up behind me while i cut deep into the rope. i never saw him coming.

but i felt him hit me hard on the back of the neck, knocking me half-way across the room.

stunned and scared to death, i scrambled to my feet and fled the barn. i never found the knife, nor saw it ever again.

months later, i came across a lamp in our house which had its bulb removed. curious, i stuck my finger down into the empty socket.

oddly, that same strange man hit me in the back of the neck again, and at that moment i made the connection: electricity and i had been formally introduced to each other, and we two have been foes ever since that day.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

a fear of eight legs

most american spiders are harmless creatures.

we (as compared to our brothers and sisters down in australia, for example) only have two that we have to contend with, which are considered only slightly dangerous by the experts; the black widow spider and our small brown recluse.

both are said to be non-life threatening.

oh, and then there is the tarantula, a scary-looking hairy thing that still gives me the creeps, even as an adult.

they (hollywood, california) made horror movies about a particular one during the 1950s, which involved atomic radiation gone wild, and the resulting gigantic spider, who terrorized the state of new mexico, killed and devoured lots of cattle, plus a few people along the way.

that monstrous beast scared the heebie-jeebies out of me when i was young. i recall being afraid to walk home from the theater after dark that night.

but man, i loved it a lot, only craving for more of the same.

once, a few years ago, a visiting friend of mine and her daughter (who came to us all the way from adelaide, in the state of south australia) stopped by and stayed with my family and me for several days. we had a blast, mostly. we stayed up all night and talked and talked, and slept very little. she even brought me some vegemite to sample, and i tried it but gagged. and naturally, we offered her some of our peanut butter, which she hated as well.

now at the time, we lived in an old farm house that had an ancient basement below. i invited my friend down the steps to view the old logs which had been used as floor joists; they still had the bark on them, and were very unusual, and i thought, most remarkable for this day and age. i always showed it off to visitors.

but half-way down the stairs she spotted a lone spider web, and immediately reversed her course, squealing loudly with fright.

what was her deal, i wondered?

now how was i to know that she grew up around dangerous red back spiders and funnel web spiders, which kill many people down-under? all i knew about at the time were kangaroos and the funny-looking duck-billed platypus, and of course, that ever-huggable koala bear.

nice place, australia. i would still like to go there myself someday.

but she has never let me forget about that event, even now, and has just recently gone on to marry an american fellow by the name of patrick. and then she moved into his home out in the midwest prairie, in the state of iowa.

her new husband has his own basement that he must be proud of, and i now hear that she refuses to ever set foot down those frightful steps.

surely there are giant spiders living there. we all know that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

the death of aunt bessie

my aunt bessie, who was 95 years old, passed away last week.

she lived nearby where i grew up as a kid, far out in the country near the small community of daisy, georgia. my younger sister alma recently drove all the way from east texas to attend the funeral.

i just discovered a few years back that neither bessie nor my uncle charlie (deceased) were ever our true kin. they merely lived close to us, and had the same last name as ours. it turns out, as i learned, that it was custom back then for children to address their elders as aunt and uncle, as a sign of respect.

however, our families were close.

aunt bessie kept my two sisters and me many a night when our parent went out on the town. bessie had 3 children of her own, who we though of as our cousins, so we always had a good time there.

one girl, wilma, was my age, and was a dead ringer for barbara eden who played the female genie in the tv show, "i dream of jeannie". she had the same exotic eyes, a pouty mouth, long blonde hair; i was hooked and fell fast in love.

but she was my cousin, i rationalized, so i held my feelings in check.

years later, after finding out the true situation, i much regretted being so honorable.

her brother, gary, was a few years older and much taller than me. he wore thick-lens glasses, and looked thoughtful and intelligent.

once he showed me a fresh scar on his head. a doctor had stitched it up, telling gary he only had a few cents left, and so gary asked me to spot them for him. i never got the joke till years later.

the eldest child, charlene, was much older that most of us, and always looked regal, as i recall. she once moved in with my parents after we relocated to west texas. her goal then was to become a model, and a local photographer did his best to make it happen, even though it never did.

aunt bessie and uncle charlie were a farming family. they seemed to be better off financially that most of our dirt-poor neighbors. charlie grew cotton, corn, sugar cane and tobacco. he kept cows, pigs and aunt bessie kept a flock of chickens. they had a well in the back yard that we as kids would drop stones down just to hear them splash.

once, a bunch of us decided to ride uncle charlie's pigs for sport. it was very exciting hearing those pigs squeal, but much too scary when uncle charlie showed up and began yelling at everybody. we scattered like flies.

a big event happened one summer when a stick of curing tobacco leaves that had been hung high up in his tobacco barn slipped and fell during the night, and the long stick punctured a hole in one of the heating tubes near the ground. the ensuing fire consumed the entire barn along with its contents, and gave people for miles around news to talk about for weeks.

one sultry afternoon, i trekked barefooted down one of the dirt roads near our house to investigate some of my neighbors. along the way i came upon a familiar sight in the road, yet strange, somehow. i stopped and studied it for a few moments.

it was not unusual to find a dead snake stretched out on some part of a roadway in rural georgia, nor was it odd to plainly see tire tracks from a car that had swerved to intentionally run over the serpent. but the things that got my attention were these:

the snake's eyes were shut tight. it's tongue hung limply from the mouth, almost touching the dirt. but the most puzzling thing was how the snake laid there on the road, chopped-up looking. it appeared the reptile had been neatly hacked into several pieces by a meat cleaver or some sharp object. i knew the thing was dead, and never bothered to poke it with a stick, as i normally might have.

i then continued on with my ambling journey, shortly arriving at an old negro lady's house, whom i knew quite well. she sat in the shade of her front porch, and waved when she saw me coming. i stopped and excitedly told her of my fresh experience with that unusual snake. then she wisley nodded and said that it was called a "giant snake". i had never heard of one before, but i believed the woman with all my heart. respecting adults was a way of life in those days.

farther down the road i came to my aunt and uncle's farmhouse. aunt bessie was shelling a bowl full of black-eyed peas while sitting on the porch swing. i climbed up beside her and repeated the incident with all it's detail, including the old woman's comment.

she showed her delight with my story by listening closely, and then she laughed softly.

"honey, she was saying "joint snake".

much later in my life, i discovered a real creature called a legless lizard, or common glass snake.

aunt bessie made the tastiest grits i ever ate, and i will miss both her friendly ways and her southern cooking.

the mouse that roared at me

i heard a mouse last night. it woke me up from a sound sleep, chewing loudly on something near by. darn it, they are back, i thought. the little gnarly whippersnappers.

i laid in bed for a while, groggily hoping the critter would go away. but it kept right on chewing and jarring my senses.

i finally woke up and took action.

first, i used my hand and banged on the back of a metal chair, which stood next to my bed. the noise it produced was dull and ineffective. so i banged on it harder, this time using a near-by flashlight. it sounded more or less the same: the mouse kept crunching away.

then i cleared my throat loudly. nothing changed. after that, as he showed no fright, i pounded on the floor several times with my fist.

crazy mouse - he kept right on chewing noisily on something that must have been too good to pass up. i pictured the little rodent as having crossed eyes and smiling wanly.

finally, from my bed i hissed loudly at the room, pretending that i was a cat.


my frustration worked wonders; the room instantly grew silent, and eventually i fell back to sleep.

how easy was that, mouse-trap people?