The Taste of Memory

From the tenor of their conversation, it seemed the woman placing her order had been a customer of the meat market for some time. At least the clerk had known her long enough to ask, “Do you want seven chicken breasts, or have the kids gone back to school?” After a moment’s thought, the woman said, “One’s still at home, but she doesn’t like chicken. Two will be enough.”

“What about a roast?” the clerk said. “Are you ready for a nice pork loin, or some chuck?” The woman sighed. “No. Not yet. I can’t bring myself to turn on the oven in this heat. Besides, roasts are for winter.”

That’s when I smiled, recognizing a woman who shared my preferences. I don’t crave pot roast in summer any more than I long for gazpacho when I’m trying to thaw out in January. Some dishes appeal throughout the year, but certain foods, whether from habit or preference, remain confined to one season.

As I pondered my own list of seasonal foods, it occurred to me that ice cream manufacturers are in a tricky spot. It would be easy to associate ice cream only with warm weather: a refreshing treat for days when temperatures soar. For decades, families spent summer afternoons churning homemade ice cream, just as the churches turned to ice cream socials as summer fund-raisers. The sound of the roving ice-cream seller’s bell was a summer sound, and summer trips to the ice house were as often for ice as for beer.

To break the connection between ice cream and summer — and to make a profit even in the depths of winter — companies had to find new ways to attract customers.

One of the most effective methods has been the establishment of seasonal flavors, and Texas’s beloved Bluebell Creamery has mastered the approach. Aficionados of the brand have learned their ice cream calendar by heart: peppermint in December and January, Mardi Gras in March, homemade vanilla with peaches or strawberries in early summer, and southern blackberry cobbler as August turns to September.

Fall deserves it’s own flavors, of course; spiced pumpkin and butter pecan are sheer perfection. When they appear on store shelves in the weeks between summer’s peaches and holiday peppermint, everyone knows that falling leaves, crisp air, and pot roast can’t be far away. While we wait for the end of summer’s interminable heat, we enjoy: waxing poetic over the virtues of a traditional and quite tasty treat.

 

  So
  little
  is needed.
A dish. A spoon.
  Even the carton
  will do in a pinch if
  no one is watching, no one
  complaining, no one advising
sweet moderation when offered the
chance to keep scooping and scooping away.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here .

 

 

When Old Rules Meet New Situations

It seems the receptionist stepped out for a moment

It’s an old joke, but in certain circles it still gets a laugh:

“What’s the difference between a boatyard and a bar?”
“In a bar, someone might be working.”

To a degree, the joke’s rooted in reality. Boatyards have their share of hard workers, but they also shelter a variety of reprobates: scam artists, hustlers, and hard-drinking, hard-living sorts who aren’t necessarily subscribers to the Protestant work ethic. Skilled but not always schooled, they drift through coastal towns like so much flotsam and jetsam, rarely noticed or remarked by those who comb along life’s beaches.

On the waterfront, skilled craftspeople, under-employed shrimpers, undocumented workers, refugees from corporate boardrooms, and dedicated boat junkies ebb and flow with the tides. In the easy-going camaraderie that develops, there’s more than enough room for the idiosyncratic and quirky, the lazy, the listless, and the flatly mysterious drifters who show up from time to time.

By the time I began working in local yards, Varnish John had been around for years. Although not precisely a drifter, an aura of mystery surrounded him. He didn’t seem to frequent the local cafés or bars, and I never found him sitting in the sheds after work, drinking beer and swapping stories with other workers.

Despite his constant presence,  no one seemed to know his full name. When asked, he’d say only that he was from ‘up the coast.’ Tall and slender, showing only slight traces of youthful dissipation, he favored jeans and faded cotton shirts; he considered tee-shirts too informal for work at ‘the office.’

Despite his age — generally assumed to be around seventy or seventy-five — he seemed impervious to difficult weather conditions, working gloveless in winter and sometimes barefoot in summer.  Still, his brightwork was as beautiful as any I’d seen. He worked for only a few select customers, and during his occasional months-long absences, we always assumed he was in the islands, varnishing some elegant beauty of a boat in warm, Caribbean breezes.

Break time in the Boatyard

When in the yards, John rarely had much to say. He’d nod in passing, but avoided the easy banter typical of such places. In his own way unsubstantial as a wraith, he seemed wrapped in silence.  Always polite, he never invited approach. He simply ‘was’ — like the ospreys or herons watching from the edges of our world.

One day, bending over a trawler’s rail with my brush in hand, I felt a sudden presence. Looking up, I discovered John standing a few feet away, watching. I assumed he’d have nothing to say, until he surprised me by commenting on the weather and asking a few questions about my varnish and my brush.

Unwilling to stop working but not wanting to be thought impolite, I answered his questions as I moved down the rail. As I reached the rail’s end and straightened up, he said, “Good. You didn’t stop. Everyone wants to talk, so you have to learn to work and talk at the same time.” Then he turned, and walked off down the dock.

It was the first of many such encounters. John would materialize, watch, offer a pronouncement, and leave. Sometimes he offered technical tips so casually they hardly were noticeable. Some people were using this solvent rather than that; a different caulk might not mildew so badly.

Both practical and cautious, he insisted a shower, clean clothes, and a new brush were mandatory before final coats of varnish. Over time, as he taught me to varnish on clean winds blowing from the water, to recognize the first tendrils of winter fog, and to guard freshly-applied varnish with a vengeance, the truth of our relationship slowly dawned. I had a mentor.

One afternoon, in the course of a conversation about rebuilding businesses and communities after Hurricane Ike, John revealed one of his inviolable rules for life:After the big ‘un, you start where you can start, and do what you can do.”

At the time, his words seemed ordinary, and perhaps even trite. But over the years they’ve continued to resonate, particularly since they’ve applied so well to every circumstance of life: from the  realities of recovery from actual hurricanes to the wholly unexpected and utterly frustrating set of circumstances one of my vendors calls ‘the supply chain storm.’

Not every storm is as predictable as a hurricane, and I didn’t see the most recent one coming. Just after Memorial Day, when my car’s air conditioner began blowing warm air, I assumed a service call had to be added to my to-to list. Then, the AC began working again: until it didn’t. In fifteen minutes, it went from cold to warm and back again several times. When the ‘check engine’ light came on, I did the only reasonable thing and drove directly to my dealership. While I sighed over the need to leave my car while they ran their diagnostics, I accepted the offer of a complimentary Uber ride home, and prepared to wait it out.

The next day, the storm made landfall in the form of a casual phone call from my service representative. “It’s not the AC,” she said. “It’s the coolant bypass pipe. It has to be replaced.” “Great,” I said. “When will the car be ready?” After an extended pause, she said, “We don’t have the part in stock. We’ll have to order it, and it’s on backorder.” Suddenly nervous, I asked the obvious question. “How long is this going to take?” “Oh,” she said, “it should be here in three weeks.”

Yes, it’s a real sign. Danbury, Texas understands life.

As I outlined the list of difficulties presented by three weeks without a car, the service rep was sympathetic, but the options were limited. No loaner car was available, and the daily cost of a rental was exorbitant. I was going to be on my own.

When a friend working in the same marina offered to pick me up each morning and bring me home from work, that solved my most serious problem, and other friends took me to the grocery store. Still, I hadn’t been that grounded since I was in high school, and I wasn’t pleased.

When I called the dealership for updates, I learned that a shutdown of Toyota plants in Japan might be involved. Then again, the part might have been shipped; it might still be lingering in a container off a west coast port. When I pressed, a new date sort-of-certain was offered for completion of my repairs: June 25th, or perhaps the end of the month.

That’s when I remembered Varnish John, and his admonition to “Start where you can start, and do what you can do.” I started by getting the number of the required part — 162680T090 – Pipe Water By Pass — then did what I should have done much earlier. I went online, and began searching.

The next morning, I talked with a very helpful man at a Toyota parts dealership in Olathe, Kansas. They didn’t have the part in stock, but could get it. If I wanted to expedite things, the part could be sent air freight, and I could have it the next day. Of course I agreed. Never mind work; expeditions to places like Walden West demanded expeditious shipment.

For once, everything went smoothly. The Olathe dealership received the part in only hours, then forwarded it via FedEx Air Freight. When it arrived at my house the next morning, a friend took me to the dealership, where I handed 162680T090 to the Parts Manager. The service tech retrieved my car from the dealership’s back forty, and by that evening Princess and I were on our way home.

I still smile when I remember walking into the parts department with the water bypass pipe clutched in my hand, and the amazement expressed by the parts manager “How did you do it?” she asked. “We couldn’t find that part anywhere, and yet here you are. How’d you manage it?”

“Easy,” I said. “I started where I could start, and did what I could do.”

 

Comments always are welcome.

It’s Time to Take “That” Road Trip Again

If you’ve been reading The Task at Hand for a while, you already know which road trip’s involved. If you don’t know, you’re about to meet one of the best tales to come out of Texas.  It’s said that humor is the best medicine, and there’s little question we all could use a dose or two at this point. Every time I read this, I either laugh, or smile, or both. I hope you do, too.

Floydada, Texas is cotton country. It’s also known for good pumpkins, and likes to advertise itself as the Pumpkin Capital of the US.

It’s a flat, expansive piece of Panhandle real estate, a land marked by impossibly distant horizons and barely distinguishable days. Strangers develop a habit of looking around, as if to orient themselves. Even Texans who’ve grown up with the wind, the dust, and the storms say it aloud now and then, as if to remind themselves: “This place will run you nuts, if you let it.”

By the time things settled down, people wondered if Sammy Rodriguez and his brother Danny hadn’t been run nuts because of those Panhandle circumstances: too much wind; too much work; too little ability to get their bearings while facing the limitless horizons of life.

Whatever the cause, when they disappeared along with eighteen of their relatives, Floydada Police Chief James Hale heard about it as soon as some of the Rodriguez kinfolk tracked him down to report the missing brothers. The family members mentioned to Chief Hale that the men had been saying some strange things. “They made statements like ‘the Devil was after them,’ and ‘Floydada was going to be destroyed’ if they stayed here,” Hale said.

Later, someone remarked that Floydada wouldn’t be much of a loss if it was destroyed, but he said it quietly, and away from the crowds.

After more than twenty years, people in surrounding towns — even the Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals, who tend to take their religion pretty seriously — still kept clippings about the story close at hand. When I saw the article tacked onto a refrigerator in Idalou, torn rather than clipped from the newspaper and starting to yellow with age, it still bore witness to the best part of the story: every living word of it is true: excepting perhaps those conversations the preacher had with the Devil. But no one’s sure about that.

The broad outlines of the story were clear. The Rodriguez family fled Floydada in five or six cars, abandoning one in Lubbock and a second in San Angelo. A third was found in Galveston, filled with clothing, purses, wallets, and other personal items. Eventually, all twenty people crammed themselves into one car and headed east toward Florida, only to be stopped short in Vinton, Louisiana.

Main Street ~ Vinton, Louisiana

The troubles in Vinton began after a campground owner called police to say the group had tried to commandeer an RV. When a Calcasieu Parish deputy stopped their car, the driver seemed willing to answer questions, but when he got out of the car, he was clad only in a towel draped around his mid-section. Vinton Police Chief Dennis Drouillard said, “When the officer went to ask what was going on, he jumped back in and took off.”

The group not only took off, they took off down Vinton’s main street at speeds approaching 90 mph, until the car plowed through a fence at the baseball park and hit a tree. At that point, fifteen adults and five children piled out of the 1990 Pontiac Grand Am.

“They were completely nude,” Drouillard said. “All twenty of them. Didn’t have a stitch of clothes on. I mean, no socks, no underwear, no nothin’. Five of them [the children] were in the trunk. The Lord told them to get rid of all their belongings and go to Louisiana. So they got rid of all their clothes and pocketbooks and wallets and identification and the license plate off their car and came to our gorgeous state.”

The car was totaled, but the injuries were minor. Sammy Rodriguez was booked on charges of reckless driving, flight from an officer, property damage and assorted minor traffic violations.


Like the police, city prosecutors found themselves bemused, and tended toward leniency. In exchange for Rodriguez paying a $650 fine and picking up the $975 tab for fixing the fence and a telephone pole, they dismissed charges of criminal damage to property.

In a fit of good sense, no charges were brought for indecent exposure. As Court Clerk Mary Vice said, “The statute states that for indecent exposure you have to be exposing yourself in order to arouse someone. That wasn’t their intent.”

Magistrate Kent Savoie gave Rodriguez 90 days to pay for the fence and 30 days to pay the fine. He was ordered to spend 17 days in jail, but after being given credit for six days served, the balance of the sentence was suspended.

Once the proceedings ended, Savoie asked Rodriguez, pastor of the Templo Getsemani Assembly of God Church, why he and his nineteen relatives left their clothes behind in their flight from Texas. Rodriquez said he had a vision from God on August 17, telling him Judgment Day was at hand, and he and his family were to go to Florida. At some point in the journey, they became convinced the Devil was in the details of their clothing, so off it came.

Whatever Savoie thought of the response, he seemed to accept it. “I don’t know what possessed you to do what you did, but I’m relying on the statement you were told to do so by some higher being.” By that time, Rodriguez had been thinking things over. “It wasn’t God, sir,” Rodriguez answered, his voice nearly inaudible. “I would like to apologize to the people of Vinton and Floydada for everything, and I ask for their forgiveness.”

Rodriguez said he planned to leave immediately for Lubbock and then Floydada. “When I return to Floydada I am pretty certain that I will no longer be the pastor of my church, unless the people there can forgive me,” he said. “I plan to look for a job as soon as I get back.” Rodriguez’s wife’s family sent her a plane ticket, and she returned ahead of him. A relative drove the other 18 people on to Wauchula, Florida.

And that would have been the end of it, had not a fellow named Chris Stuart heard the story ten years later. Deciding he had enough material for a song, he went to work. In the end, he wrote a memorable one — good enough to be included in a collection of Car Talk Car Tunes put together by National Public Radio for their popular Saturday morning show hosted by Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.

Whenever I listen to the song, I laugh. I wouldn’t be surprised to know God laughs every time he hears the story, and taps his toe to the song. Let’s face it. Humans can be good for a laugh now and then, even when we’re trying to be serious.


Twenty Naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac
I was thumbin’ my way down to Baton Rouge, standin’ on the side of the road,
When a car pulled over and a voice cried out, “We’ll take you where you want to go.”
I jumped inside, but to my surprise, they were naked as a poor man’s toes.
It was a tight situation when the whole congregation said the devil was in my clothes.
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac,
Brothers and sisters shoutin’ in the back,
Elders in the front, choir in the trunk,
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac.
The sermon that morning was on Adam and Eve and the ways of the dreadful snake,
Everybody was clappin’ when the preacher pointed at me, my body began to shake.
I threw off my shirt, and my shoes and my socks,
My jeans and my BVDs.
We were all in the nude, shoutin’ “Hallelu!”
and singing “Somebody Touched Me.”
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac,
Brothers and sisters shoutin’ in the back,
Elders in the front, choir in the trunk,
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac.
We had the cruise control set to fifty-five, when a Smokey got on our tail.
He pulled up beside, his eyes got wide, and the siren began to wail.
We ran off the road toward the tree of life, Lord, the future was looking bleak,
We hung on and prayed, everybody was saved,
‘Cause we all knew how to turn the other cheek.
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac,
Brothers and sisters shoutin’ in the back,
Elders in the front, choir in the trunk,
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.

Blackberry Rain

Occasional showers have fallen in parts of Texas, but desiccated pastures, thinning herds, drying playas, and empty stock ponds make clear the continuing need for rain.

Hidden behind such public signs of drought lie other consequences: equally troublesome, if more personal.  During a recent visit with a hill country friend, I heard a familiar sigh as I split a breakfast biscuit and reached for the dish of preserves. “That’s the last of the peach,” she said. “I’m down to apple butter now, until we see how things turn out this year. I sure hope things get better.”

For my friend, “better” means rain. Several times in the past decade drought has put an end to her vegetables and fruits. The fig trees barely produced, pears were the size of walnuts, and pecans shriveled in their shells. Even the dewberries bloomed sparsely, setting so little fruit she left it for hungry birds and animals.

The sweet, trellised blackberries that overflowed her baskets in the past withered and died, offering up only tart, unappealing berries. Without good berries the usual abundance of pies, cobblers, and sauces disappeared, not to mention the brandied berries traditionally set aside for holidays.

Dewberry blossom

“Could you have watered?” I asked. “I did,” she said, “but as the weeks went by, we decided to stop. Some people’s wells went dry, and I couldn’t risk that. I let the flower gardens go first, then the vegetables. I hated it, but there was nothing else to do, even though I didn’t get a single decent tomato.”

Life without blackberry cobbler is one thing. Life without tomatoes is something else. Like generations of women, including my own grandmother, my friend traditionally spent the summer canning uncounted quarts of  sauced, stewed, and diced tomatoes for the long winter ahead.

In my grandparents’ fruit cellar, jars shone in the dim light like jewels: tomatoes, peaches and plums; cherries suspended in burgundy syrup; jams, jellies, and marmelades; sweet corn relish, spiced apples and pears, and the translucent shimmer of pickles. My friend’s larder always had resembled that jewel-like abundance, until the scourge of drought took first her water and then the harvest that helps to sustain her family through the year.

Some of her more drought-tolerant fruits have survived the summers, although their yield was low.  Two varieties of persimmon, one a Texas native (Diospyros texana) and one the more familiar Asian (Diospyros kaki) were freely shared with a multitude of birds and squirrels, white-tailed deer, foxes, possums and raccoons.

The possum’s love of persimmons is legendary. In some regions, the creature spends so much time gorging on its fruit the tree is known as ‘possum wood.’ John James Audubon pictured the Virginia Opossum in a persimmon tree, and an old American folk-song celebrates the relationships among the Possum, the Persimmon, and the Raccoon.

Possum in a ’simmon tree, raccoon on the ground,
Raccoon said, “”You rascal, shake them ’simmons down!”

On the Gulf Coast, Atakapa Indians called persimmons piakimin. Early French settlers transformed it into plaquemine, familiar to many as the name of a Louisiana parish. Elias Wightman, a surveyor for Stephen F. Austin in the 1820s, documented persimmon groves in southeast Texas; the trees he found were the drought-resistant natives, their seedy black fruit much smaller and differently-shaped than the larger and more familiar red-orange Asian varieties. Both provide a wonderful base for an assortment of pastries and jams once the frosts reduce their astringent qualities. My first persimmon came from my friend’s hill country tree, and I was amazed by its smooth sweetness.

For pure eating pleasure from native Texas plants, you can’t do better than jams and jellies made from berries of the agarita, one of my friend’s favorites.  Because of its prickly nature, the best way to gather agarita berries is to lay a cloth on the ground and thrash the bushes, but when drought reduces the berry crop of even this hardy plant, time spent in bush-thrashing isn’t worth the return, and agarita jelly won’t be on the table.

Ripening Agarita berries

Recently, even the yield of berries from Scarlet Firethorn, or Pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea), has declined somewhat.  Its beautiful red, red-orange, or yellow berries resemble tiny apples, and it’s branches often are used for decorating. My favorite bush, a large volunteer on a fenceline below my friend’s home, disappeared when the county showed up to widen and pave the road, but new shrubs always appear as seeds are spread by birds who love its tasty and nutritious fruit. In fall and winter, the berries occasionally ferment, leaving robins and waxwings staggering from the bushes, nearly unable to fly.

For years I assumed pyracantha was poisonous, but the apple-shaped berries are perfectly suitable for human consumption; boiling the fruit and straining the pulp to remove the seeds is all that’s necessary to make a fine jelly. It’s more work that I’m willing to take on, but thanks to my friend, I’ve had the opportunity to try pyracantha pancake syrup and agarita jelly: small reminders of nature’s abundance and human care.

Pyracantha

As friends will do, we often spend long hours drinking coffee and talking around the table. One memorable night, a sudden rattle across the tin roof and a rush of wind signaled rain. In a country so long bereft of storms, nothing could be more comforting.  “We sure do need more of that,” someone said as the rain murmured outside the windows. Then, the chairs were pushed back and we all went off to bed, ready to enjoy the luxury of falling asleep to the sound of falling rain.

The next morning, the “more” we’d hoped for had come. Puddles dotted the caliche drive and damp yard cats huddled under the potting shed, water dripping around them. We said our farewells in drizzle and fog: a gauzy, gray coverlet tucked around the resting ridges and valleys.

An hour later, as I swung around San Antonio and headed east, more rain developed. Heavy enough to make driving a challenge and consistent enough to bring a smile, it coursed along the ditches and collected in fields. Overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude, I tried, without success, to remember the last time I’d witnessed such abundance.

Passing a farmhouse, I glimpsed a man standing on his porch, just watching. A few miles down the road, I stopped for gas and coffee and found the men gathered at the front of the small store looking very much the same: hands tucked into pockets, eyes focused on the rain.

Coffee in hand, I left the store only to discover the drizzle had once again turned into a near-torrent. Standing under the awning, waiting for it to slack off before I headed to the car, I listened to the desultory talk.

“Nice,” said one fellow. “Sure enough,” said another. “Smells good, too,” said a third. And it did. It smelled clean, and fresh. It smelled like a new start, and hope, and home. It smelled sweet, like the promise of abundance.

It smelled like next year’s blackberries.

Comments always are welcome.

Living Through the Dry Days

“It’s the dust,” the old man said. “I can’t stand the damned dust.” And he couldn’t.

Moving through the house, he dusted reflexively, compulsively: the dampened cloth swinging and swiping in defiance of the elements. He considered dry heat a personal affront; wind an insult; dust a threat — inescapable reminders of those wretched childhood days atop the Caprock when dust was not merely an annoyance but a destroyer.

Even after the worst of the Dust Bowl years had passed, he absorbed his family’s grief and fear-filled stories. There was the blowing sand, stripping his uncle’s car of paint in less time than it takes to tell the tale. There was his mother, wedging damp towels into cracks around the windows and doors of the old house, re-wetting them with her tears. One neighbor, caught out in a fast-moving storm, became disoriented, unable to see and certain of death by billowing and unconstrained dirt. Although he survived, it was said he never recovered.

Even the apocryphal stories rang true. Did a Panhandle priest flee back to Illinois after that terror-filled Ash Wednesday service: seeking solace in the valleys, verdant fields, and rivers of his midwestern home? No one had proof, but no one doubted it was possible. Priest or not, what man could endure reminding his fellows that from dust they’d come and to dust they would return, even as the dust of destruction overtook their lives?

“Were you afraid it would happen again?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “It didn’t take much to remind folks. Still doesn’t. When the rains don’t come, people get nervous — kind of alert. They watch the sky; look for clouds; sniff the air. When the first well goes dry, if there’s no hay, if the springs stop running…”

He trailed off, considering. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I’d sit on the front step of the house. There wasn’t anything around but the lane out to the road, and the fields. I’d sit there and watch the wheat blow, bending and waving. It looked like I thought the ocean would look if I ever could see it.”

“I looked at that wheat and thought about water while I waited for the clouds to build. Sometimes I’d think about what it was like to have a really good rain. Anybody living in the Panhandle better hold on to a few good rain memories. They’ll stand you in good stead in the dry days.”

It’s a dry day, now. Coastal marshes are growing shallow, leaving water birds perplexed. Tendrils of smoke curl in from distant fires; even the frogs are silent. Perhaps the creatures are remembering other dry times: considering their own experiences of endurance and survival. Perhaps, like people of the drought and like the earth itself they, too, are waiting for refreshment; for renewal; for rain.

Seed takes no pleasure in a thin and heat-parched earth.
To root and hold demands a different soil:

damp, receptive loam turned and broken,
fields unrolled from horizon to horizon
with a firm and measured hand.
Straighter and less complicated than a river’s curl
furrows slice across the land, silent and predictable.
Their simplicity refreshes.

Around them,
rotting fences dissolve in mist
while birdsong drips like dew
and coursing torrents
from billowing clouds
wash clear both air and sight:
sluicing through fields and flooding ditches,
joining seed to furrow and enlivening growth
before ebbing and flowing
away.
~ Linda Leinen

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