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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An Easter Journey

 

Faith
is the instructor.
We need no other.
Guess what I am,
he says in his
incomparably lovely
young-man voice.
Because I love the world,
I think of grass,
I think of leaves
and the bold sun,
I think of the rushes
in the black marshes
just coming back
from under the pure white
and now finally melting
stubs of snow.
Whatever we know or don’t know
leads us to say;
Teacher, what do you mean?
But faith is still there, and silent.
Then he who owns
the incomparable voice
suddenly flows upward
and out of the room
and I follow,
obedient and happy.
Of course I am thinking
the Lord was once young
and will never in fact be old.
And who else could this be, who goes off
down the green path
carrying his sandals, and singing?

 

                                          “Spring” ~ by Mary Oliver

 

As always, comments are welcome.

How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls?

Ready to ride the fences

Any Houstonian who hears “YeeeeeHaw!echoing down the corridors of a Fortune 500 company, or notices the distinctive click of boot heels on polished granite, knows what’s happening. It’s Rodeo time in Houston.

Founded in 1931, the Houston Fat Stock Show & Exposition eventually became the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, but for most Houstonians, it’s just The Rodeo: a mélange of trail rides, barbeque, bronc riding, , baby animals,  quilt exhibits, livestock auctions, calf scrambles, and concerts. Staffed primarily by volunteers, it’s also a rich source of scholarships: more than 2,300 students attending more than 80 Texas colleges and universities currently benefit from Rodeo scholarships valued at more than $50 million; nearly 20,000 scholarships have been awarded since 1957.

This year’s event will close Sunday night with a concert-only performance by George Strait, who’s performed at the Rodeo thirty times since his first appearance in 1983. His performance with Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen in 2019 set an attendance record that  may be broken this weekend. Personally, I prefer a smaller venue, but I do hope the Rodeo crowd gets to hear a favorite song I heard Strait sing at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels.

How ’bout them cowgirls, indeed. With the Rodeo in town, everyone’s a cowboy or cowgirl. Even the slickest, most citified sort begins wearing boots and overblown belt buckles. People who tend to equate beef with the ribeye on their plate discuss the finer points of Longhorn breeding. Local broadcasters trail behind trailriders, sopping up stories like so much sausage gravy, while dance studios cope with a surge of people demanding classes in Western Swing and the Texas Two-Step.

It’s Rodeo Fever, and even a Yankee can catch it. After moving to Houston, I discovered I had no immunity. After all, as a child, I didn’t long to be a princess, ballerina, or nurse. I wanted to be a cowgirl.

I didn’t want to jump ropes, I wanted to twirl them. I didn’t want to eat my carrots, I wanted to feed them to a horse. I tuned in to the noon market reports not because I cared about corn futures, but because I wanted to sing along with the Sons of the Pioneers. Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds was my favorite, and the most famous member of the group, Roy Rogers, was my hero. If Roy liked Dale Evans? I’d try to like her, too.

I watched them on television, and collected their comic books. I carried my school-day sandwich in a Roy Rogers lunch box, and my milk in a Dale Evans thermos. Eventually, I received a passionately longed for black-and-white cowgirl outfit: minus the boots, but with a pair of six-shooters and a faux tooled leather holster. What the Smothers Brothers sang as parody, I believed to be true:

I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,
I see by your outfit you are a cowboy, too.
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys,
If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.

 I outgrew my outfit before I stopped wearing it, but a new life in Texas moved me beyond childhood fantasy into a deeper appreciation of what being a cowgirl actually entails.

Eventually, I became friends with real Texas cowgirls, and began to hear stories of some famous ones. Louise O’Connor, a fifth-generation member of a family that’s been ranching near Victoria since 1834, published a book titled Cryin’ for Daylight, a reference to a statement made by an itinerant cowhand named Will King: “We loved to work cattle so much we’d just be sittin’ around, crying for daylight to come.”

Cowgirl Connie Douglas Reeves taught generations of girls to ride at Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas, before being tossed from her horse and dying at the age of 101. She taught far more than riding. Her most insistent bit of advice – “Always saddle your own horse” – became the unofficial motto of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and a touchstone for thousands of women who’d never touched a real horse. The day I found her words painted onto a cedar board that had been wedged into a pile of rocks along the Sabinal River, I smiled; she would have been pleased.

Hallie Stillwell, who continued to ranch in Texas’s unforgiving Big Bend country for years after her husband’s death, became one of the larger-than-life ranch women of the American West through a combination of classic sharp-shooting skills, political acumen, ordinary town jobs, and a syndicated newspaper column.

My favorite image of Hallie, produced by artist Debbie Little-Wilson and called “Hallie’s Moon,” was imprinted on tee-shirts for the Texas State Arts & Crafts Festival in Kerrville.


As author Kenneth B. Ragsdale wrote in his book Big Bend Country, “People throughout Texas either knew, claimed they knew, or wanted to know Hallie Stillwell.” One of first women ranchers I met, who’d known Hallie personally, put it this way: “Hallie really knew what it meant to cowgirl up.”

At the time, I didn’t understand the phrase. Later, I learned that it’s a variant of an old rodeo warning call from the chute; “Cowboy up” meant the rider was seated on the back of a bronco or bull and was ready for the gate to open.

Over time, the expression took on a broader meaning. It suggested that someone was ready and able to tackle the next challenge: physically and mentally prepared for difficult or dangerous tasks. Used as an exhortation, “Cowboy up!” came to mean, “Get with it. Don’t shirk your responsibility. Give it your best.”

One woman who understood what it meant to “cowgirl up” was Helen Bonham, a rodeo cowgirl who also served as Miss Wyoming in 1917. During the year of her reign, she traveled broadly, delighting crowds with her considerable riding skills.

In 1920, she arrived in New York City to invite Mayor John Francis Hylan back to Wyoming for Frontier Days. During her visit, she entertained 15,000 Girl Scouts during their own annual Field Day by roping and riding her way through the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

Travel can be frustrating, lonely and tiring, even when undertaken in pursuit of a dream. Bonham helped to balance the challenges of her life by staying in touch with those she’d left behind. Without email, Twitter, Facebook, or Zoom to help her out, she coped in the same way that previous generations of travelers had coped. She wrote letters.

This famous postcard, showing Helen using her saddle as a desk, was incorporated by Debbie Little-Wilson into her print titled St. Helen Bonham, Protector of Email, part of a series she called Cowgirl Saints.

While rodeo cowgirl Helen Bonham corresponded religiously back home,
she would never have imagined that one day letters would travel at the blink of an eye.
She would have ridden cyberspace with the same daring as she did her horse.
Saint Helen protects the sending and receiving of email
and the mystery of it all.

Today, St. Helen’s image hangs above my computer desk, next to a copy of the postcard which inspired it, watching over my wisdom and my foolishness alike. Helen Bonham never had a computer, and I never got my horse and saddle, but we both benefited from still-living traditions: traditions of self-reliance, adaptability, resourcefulness, and the flat hard work so necessary for life in a real world.

Not everyone needs a horse, but a clear eye, a steady hand, and a ready willingness to “cowgirl up” always are in order. Where those exist, someone surely will say, “How ’bout that cowgirl?”

Comments always are welcome.