Purple Cows on Parade

It was, as they say, a ritual. Sunday meant church, a change of clothes and a relaxed dinner.  Sometimes it meant football and other times a bit of yard work but always, if the weather allowed, it meant a drive in the country.

Even without a visit to nearby grandparents, there were excuses to be out and about. There was growing corn that needed checking, bittersweet to be cut from the ditches, fresh gravel to be tested. In spring, we looked for the first robin. In autumn, the last leaves swirled and scudded like vast, colorful clouds while we counted the bundles of snow fence waiting along the shoulders of the road. “They’ve got more fence out than usual,” my dad would say. “Must be expecting a hard winter.”

On the rare afternoons when corn, cattails or bittersweet failed to entertain, we’d read the Burma Shave signs or “collect” out-of-state license plates. There went “Minnesota”, a common enough sight. Here came “Illinois”, a reminder of far-away relatives.  “But look!” I squealed from the back seat. “Montana!”  We might as well have discovered a Bedouin galumphing through Iowa on his camel. (more…)

The Pleasures of Pelecanus Poeticus

Whether Eleanor Johnson had the pleasure of meeting a pelican during the course of her lifetime, I can’t say. What I know is that, had a pelican plummeted into our 5th grade classroom and perched atop her desk, the first words out of Miss Johnson’s mouth would have been, “Children! Quick! Get out your pencils! Let’s write a poem about our unexpected visitor!”

One of my favorite teachers, Miss Johnson guided us capably enough through lessons in arithmetic and social studies, but her first love was poetry. Obsessed with verse, she clearly hoped to inculcate that same obsession in her little charges.  She would have poured poetry into our heads with a funnel if she’d been able, but lacking direct physical  access to our distracted childhood brains, she did the next best thing – nagging, cajoling, insisting and assigning until we nearly collapsed under the weight of her enthusiasm.

We read biographies of poets, memorized stanzas and recited sonnets in front of the class until until we thought we were going to throw up from the anxiety of it all. When we were assigned our first written theme, an unhappy exercise meant to answer the question What is poetry? groans of disapproval and resistance echoed down the halls. I remember sighing as I examined the new burden she’d imposed.  The essay was to be no less than two hundred words!  My distress was eased only slightly by knowing I already had one answer to Miss Johnson’s question, an answer I suspected she might approve.  Poetry, to my way of thinking, was fun. (more…)

Published in: on August 10, 2012 at 11:37 am  Comments (101)  
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Follow the Muddy Dirt Road

Question: What do you get when you combine Italian immigrants, a bag of Louisiana acorns, some determined folk in a historically-minded Texas town and a California native who (along with his crew) moves trees with all the pride and competence you’d expect from an ex-Marine?

Answer: A feel-good story of the first order. Read on…

League City, Texas is growing. In the year 2000, the U.S. Census found 45,874 residents in the just-slightly-sleepy little town I call home, By 2010, I’d added myself and my mother to the new total of 83,560, and plenty of others have done so since.  Homes, schools and churches are popping up everywhere. New business is coming in, traffic is becoming an issue and we’ve earned the distinction of having the third-worst intersection in the Houston-Galveston area.

Road construction is a fact of life, particularly since so many streets no longer are traveled only by the people who live along them. Plans were well underway to convert such a street, Louisiana Avenue,  from an open ditch, rural roadway to a concrete-curbed storm sewer thoroughfare when some observant citizens realized a tiny obstacle stood in the way of all that progress – an uncommon and historically significant tree, the Ghirardi Compton Oak. (more…)

Art and Life Say “Howdy” and Shake

I hadn’t meant to linger, but when Hazel caught me just outside the post office doors, there was nothing for it but to say good morning and fold up the to-do list.  Like everyone in town, I knew the truth Hazel freely confessed. She came to the post office as much for the socializing as for stamps, and when she bumped into you, she expected to be humored.

That day, it was my turn.  We covered her loss at the weekly domino party (“they cheated”), the small size of her figs (“not near enough rain”) and the relative merits of oilcloth versus paper table coverings at a picnic. She’d just begun dissecting the virtues and faults of her grand-daughter’s new boyfriend (“polite enough, but not much use on a tractor”) when a fellow I recognized but didn’t know by name parked his truck and ambled up the sidewalk.

Hazel fairly beamed. “Harlan!” she said. “Why aren’t you out with them cows?” Harlan just grinned. “Now, why would I be spendin’ time with a bunch of old cows when I can come here and spend time with you?” Turning my direction, Harlan touched the brim of his hat with a finger. “Mornin’, ma’am.”

Hazel always remembered her manners. “Have you met this young lady?” “I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure,” Harlan said. “I sure haven’t. We’ve howdied, but we ain’t shook yet. Pleased to meet you, ma’am.” The introductions made, we proceeded to shake hands, right then and there. (more…)

Published in: on April 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm  Comments (89)  
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A Little Nash Ramble

The guy running the front loader couldn’t have been nicer. “Look at this,” he said to his wife as she wandered up, shovel in hand, trying to shush the dogs. “She’s got the same danged map as that other guy.” Handing the map to the woman, he gave me a look generally reserved for well-intentioned but slightly dim folk. “Around here, we don’t call it a prairie. We call it a hay field.” 

“Well,” I said, “whatever you call it, I can’t find it. That map says it’s supposed to be twenty-six miles north of Highway 35. When I got to County Road 18 I knew I’d gone too far, but I sure hadn’t gone twenty-six miles. I decided I’d better stop and ask somebody who’d know.”

That made him smile. It made his wife smile, too. We stood around for a bit, grinning at one another while the dogs snuffled around my ankles and bumblebees trundled through the rising heat. Finally, he pushed back his hat and said, “Tell you what. Go on back down the road a piece, past the old Gibson place. Pass by the goat on the right and keep a-goin’. If you get to the substation, you’ve gone too far.”

Deciphering directions in Texas can take some skill, but there was no questioning the importance of “goat” and “substation” if I wanted to find the prairie. “Down the road a piece” and “over yonder” never translate into miles. If I’d asked enough times about the old Gibson place, I might have discovered it’s the Kutchka place now, or that the columns out front that made it recognizable aren’t there any longer since the Gibsons tore them out when they bought it. But, I might not have discovered any of that, so “goat” and “substation” it would have to be. (more…)

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