Upward, then Onward

Madonna of the Trail  ~ Council Grove, Kansas

Confused, frightened, or hungry for attention, children quickly learn the value of the single word, “Up!”  Whether shouted as a demand or whispered as a plea, the word is capable of bringing adult arms down to a child’s level: ready to enfold the needy little bundle of humanity into a blanket of security, lift it high, and ensure its safety.

The urge to flee upward seems instinctive. On my third birthday, neighbors decided I should have a pet. When the time came to share cake and ice cream, they appeared at the door with a tiny puppy in a box.  Black, glistening curls of fur and long floppy ears wriggled in pleasure as belly rubs and ear scratches were offered.Then, the puppy was turned loose. After making a few quick circles, the creature produced a cascade of wild yips and headed straight for me.

My escape became the stuff of family legend. Bounding upward, I landed first on a dining room chair and then atop my mother’s prized mahogany dining table, shoes and all. The puppy continued to tumble and jump, trying to follow, while I screamed in terror, refusing to be reassured. Eventually, the well-meaning neighbors made their way home with their new dog, while I scooted off the table and was consoled with a second helping of ice cream.

Fifty years later I met French Charlie, a sailor who’d had his own experience of moving ‘up’ in the world. Born in Marseilles and given to crossing the Atlantic at the first hint of boredom, he preferred single-handing in cast-off, creaky old boats. Everyone agreed he must have had angels as crew, since it was the only way to explain his survival.

Charlie liked to say he’d made five-and-a-half crossings of the Atlantic. The phrase ‘half-a-crossing’ always got someone’s attention, giving Charlie a chance to tell his favorite story: how he left Marseilles in a bathtub of a boat; how one failure led to another; how, ankle-deep in Atlantic waters, he radioed for help before clambering to the top of his boat to hang onto the mast and await death.

With his boat slowing sinking beneath him, his angels brought a Danish freighter to his side. “What do you need?” called the First Officer, leaning over the railing in amazement. “Up!” Charlie responded, in the wavering tones of a brave five-year-old. Taken aboard the freighter, he watched his boat sink beneath the waves. Not long after, he decided coastal cruising might be more to his liking, and he left the open ocean behind.

Again and again, the impulse to head ‘up’ has saved lives. Wakened from sleep, a vacationer in Phuket misinterprets screams outside his window as the foolishness of children until he looks, sees the ocean scouring the streets, and blindly begins running upward: scrambling from stairwell to balcony to the rooftop where he survives, witnessing the implacable rage of a tsunami.

Astonished by the sight of tropical storm Allison pouring into his home through still-closed windows and doors, a Houstonian clambers with his children from tabletop to stepstool to attic, where he watches the swirling water fill his house while he waits for the deluge to cease.

Terrified by Katrina’s second surge, thousands of people fled to their rooftops, blessing the Coast Guard, neighbors, and perfect strangers who rescued them by water and by air.

During the passage of hurricane Ike, a couple who’d chosen to stay in their home climbed from first to second to third floors until, as the storm’s eye passed overhead and the moon emerged from the clouds, they looked out to find themselves at sea. Bridges and roads, stop signs and billboards sank beneath the flooding tide. Only the circling currents and wind-driven waves reflected the hazy moon.

Galveston’s 1900 Storm Memorial Confronts Hurricane Ike ~ Houston Chronicle

In the face of rising storms, heading to higher ground is a reasonable choice. But while people can move, structures don’t.  In the Storm of 1900, Galveston learned that painful lesson. Not only their most vulnerable dwellings were destoyed. Substantial homes, churches, public buildings, and schools were ravaged equally, leaving the survivors with a decision. Would they run from the devastation, seeking new homes on the mainland? Or would the city itself move away from the coast in order to re-establish itself as an inland center of commerce?

In fact, Galveston chose a third option. Detailed by Cornelia Dean in her book Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches, Galvestonians determined to stay on their island, avoiding future calamity by instituting a remarkable plan.

Rather than retreating from the shifting sands to points higher elsewhere, the city decided to fence itself off from future disasters with a seawall. Everything inside [the seawall] – houses, churches, offices, trees, gardens – was raised by as much as 17 feet, and then flooded with silt. It was a plan that, even in an era of engineering, stood out for its size, cost and audacity…
The lifting operation was one of sheer brawn. Laborers ran beams under the buildings and mounted them on screwjacks that burly men turned by hand. A total of 2,156 buildings were laboriously hoisted, a quarter of an inch at a turn, until they reached the requisite height and new foundations could be built beneath them. Meanwhile, children climbed rickety catwalks to reach their schools; housewives hung their laundry from lines strung fifteen feet above the ground.
Even substantial structures took to the air. At St. Patrick’s Church, a three-hundred ton brick structure, services continued as it rose to the grunts of laborers manning two hundred screwjacks beneath it.
Galveston and Texas History Center ~ Rosenberg Library

Once the seawall had been built and the city floated above its island like a cloud, the process of grade-raising began. A canal dredged through the city center obtained fill from Galveston Bay. Dredges moved continually between harbor and canal, spewing out a slurry of water and sand on both sides in a lengthy process that required years of labor. During those years, people lived, conducted business, and attended worship in their ‘floating’ buildings, making their way around town on boardwalks fastened to the top of fences.

Houses raised and ready for filling
Photo by Zeva B. Edworthy, courtesy Galveston County Museum

The largest of four dredges was given the humorous nickname Leviathan, and gardeners grew oleanders atop their roofs until new topsoil could be brought from the mainland, but mostly there was hard, back-breaking work as an entire city literally raised itself out of despair.

Galveston and Texas History Center ~ Rosenberg Library

After the 1900 Storm, residents of Galveston elevated their city and raised one another’s spirits with a vision of new life. Roughly a century later, as that same coastline faced a series of hurricanes, Galveston’s seawall held, and their tradition of self-reliance held firm.

Up and down Gulf beaches and bay shorelines, people in surrounding communities encouraged and supported one another through the recovery processes. Through the years, an increasingly important element in that recovery has been the elevation of homes. In San Leon, Bacliff, Oak Island, Surfside, Clear Lake Shores, and Kemah — in all the towns and villages of southeast Texas — the wisdom spray-painted onto one of Hurricane Ike’s still-abandoned homes is cherished: “Move Up ~ Don’t Give Up”.

Today, elevation happens differently — no dredges are pumping slurry into neighborhoods — but the sense that higher is better has been written into hearts as well as building codes. Sometimes the progress is slow. But the work goes on, and every completed home lifts the heart a little higher.

Tiny bungalows and cottages rest on new pilings as lightly as a feather. Gardeners work the soil, hanging petunias and bougainvillea for color. Families incorporate bits and pieces of personal history into new construction while pondering questions washed up by the surge: How shall we reshape our lives? shall we stay, or shall we go? Are the answers offered by the past adequate for our day? Is there a way, finally, to rise above circumstance?

Even in years unmarked by the anguish and devastation of a major hurricane, the lessons of Galveston’s Great Storm are worth remembering. Not every flood is due to the river’s rise or a hurricane’s surge. Not all the debris floating through our lives is so easily disposed of as plywood and plastic. Not all of the filth that clogs our minds and coats our spirits can be washed away like so much clinging mud.

There are devastations of the spirit, surges of pain, winds of conflict or change that shake our certainties, unnerving us as surely as the worst storms of the season. Remembering those who both endured and prevailed over the natural world, we may find our own inspiration to create some higher ground; to raise our sights; to shore up our foundations and re-build our ties to one another before another, unexpected storm seeks to sweep us all away.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Cemetery Season

Some call it the end of winter; some call it spring. Increasingly, Texans call it wildflower season, but I’ve come to think of it as cemetery season: that time of year when human preferences for tidiness and uniformity are challenged by nature’s urge toward abundant, irrepressible growth. In at least some of our cemeteries, nature wins, and a visit to one is sheer pleasure.

In Galveston, it’s the six-block area known collectively as the Broadway Cemeteries that crowns the season. Comprised of seven burial grounds plotted between 1839 and 1939, it includes three associated with faith communities (Hebrew, Catholic, and Episcopal) and four which are non-sectarian. Some allow wildflowers to flourish while others don’t; in spring, the difference in appearance between the mowed and the unmowed is remarkable.

The cemeteries themselves have interesting histories. Today’s Oleander Cemetery, previously Potters’ Field, provided a resting place for the indigent. The New City Cemetery, originally known as the Yellow Fever Yard, was established around 1867 in response to a particularly virulent yellow fever outbreak that ravaged a city already familiar with the disease. From 1839 to 1867, at least nine yellow fever epidemics swept through Galveston; in 1853, sixty percent of the city’s approximately 45,000 residents contracted the disease, and 523 died.

Evergreen and Old City Cemeteries are filled with victims of a different sort: many who lie there perished in the Great Storm of 1900. Of course, apart from the twin insults of disease and natural disaster, each cemetery also provided final resting places for some of the earliest immigrants to Texas; soldiers from both sides of the Civil War; businessmen; legislators; and entirely ordinary families.

 In spring, the twin pillars of history and remembrance are joined by a third: the simple beauty of the flowers.

Some spread across the ground, spilling out through fences into the surrounding neighborhood. Some travel upward, accepting the crevices and cracks of aging crypts as an acceptable home.

Even the simplest stones are enhanced by the flowers surrounding them. James Grice, known as ‘Shorty’ by the fishermen he served, established a waterfront bait and tackle shop after arriving from Liverpool, England. He slept in the back of his shop, and willingly served even those customers who felt the urge to fish at midnight.

Jennie Rust’s stone has its own simple dignity, though it raises a question or two. During the Great Storm of 1900, a father named Charles Rust was knocked from a wagon while attempting to carry his family to safety; he perished with three of his children. Jennie died in 1880 at the age of eighteen, so she clearly wasn’t the wife of that Charles Rust, but I suspect the desperate father and Jennie’s Charles were somehow connected.

Not all graves are so simple, of course. The Broadway Cemeteries contain a remarkable collection of Classical Revival vaults, Gothic Revival mausoleums, and towering obelisks. 

Here, lush blooms surround one of two Willis family mausoleums. Peter James Willis, one of several family members interred in the impressive edifice, arrived in Texas from Maryland in January 1836, shortly before the fall of the Alamo. He returned to his home state in June of that year, but came back to Texas in October, bringing two younger brothers — William and Richard — with him.

The trio went to work on Buffalo Bayou, supplying wood to steamboats. They intended to use their profits to open a store in Washington on the Brazos, but fending off Brazos river bottom mosquitoes wasn’t easy, and William died of malaria. After that, the two remaining brothers moved to Montgomery, Texas, and opened their store.

In 1845, Peter  married Caroline Womack, the daughter of a prosperous planter. One of their six children, a daughter named Magnolia, married wealthy businessman George Sealy in 1875. George and his brother John were involved in cotton, banking, and railroads; John’s son, owner of the Magnolia Petroleum Company, is said to have named it for his aunt Magnolia.

My favorite Willis family story involves Magnolia. According to family legend, the construction of the landmark Sealy mansion was instigated by a statement made by Magnolia after the birth of the couple’s fifth child in 1885: “Sir, I’ll give you a second son, if you’ll build me the finest home in Galveston.”

Whatever the actual circumstances, the Neo-Renaissance mansion was completed in 1889. An elaborate carriage house designed by Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton was finished in 1891: the very year the couple’s second son was born.

The less elaborate but still appealing crypt of the Haden family can be found near the edge of the Episcopal Cemetery. Dr. J.M. Haden, born in Lowndes county, Mississippi in 1825, contributed significantly to the health and well-being of Galveston residents.

A graduate of Jackson college in Columbia, Tennessee and La Grange college in Alabama,  Dr. Haden received his M.D. in 1847 from the University of New Orleans. After serving the United States military and then that of the Confederacy,  he returned to Galveston at the end of the Civil War to begin the practice of medicine. Elected president of the Galveston County Medical Society as well as the board of directors of the Galveston Medical college, he went on to head Galveston’s Board of Health. During his tenure, it became recognized that yellow fever had been brought to Texas from outside the state, and his obituary, published inThe Galveston Daily News  on October 31, 1892, noted his role in containing the disease:

It is probably due to Dr Hayden’s measures adopted in the [yellow fever] epidemic of 1878 that such a strict state quarantine has been established, and the testimony of leading citizens is preserved which credits his vigilance with the preservation of this city from horrors of the epidemic which swept over some of our neighboring communities during his administration of our health affairs.
An unusual example of murderer and victims buried together

Occasionally, gravestones hint at nearly unimaginable horrors. After emigrating from Germany to Galveston with his family, Louis Alberti eventually married Galveston native Elize Roemer and established a successful butcher shop with his brother-in-law.

After Louis and Elize’s first-born child, Louis, Jr., died of tetanus at the age of seven, friends and family noticed changes in his mother’s behavior. Ten years later, after the births of several other children, daughter Caroline was born in 1894, then died in April of that year, before reaching her first birthday.

By May, Elize began exhibiting aberrant and violent behavior, and was sent to live with her parents in a different part of Galveston. After a few weeks she returned home, despite showing continued signs of disturbance. On the evening of December 4, 1894, Elize called her children into the dining room and offered them a few sips of wine: a customary practice in Victorian times.

Not long after, Louis began hearing screams from his children, and rushed home from his shop next door to find them in agony. Under questioning, Elize admitted she had put morphine into the wine, intending to kill both the children and herself; only Louis’s return to the house had kept her from suicide.

Despite attempts by physicians, four of the children died: Willie first, then
Dora, Ella, and Lizzie. Emma, 16, recovered enough to be sent to the hospital for a day, and she survived. Fourteen-year-old Wilhelmina escaped, since she was studying in a different room when her mother called.

The next day, Mrs. Alberti was arrested and charged with insanity. Asked if she knew what she had done, she replied that she did, and regretted only that she had not been able to take her own life. “I have been ill for the last eight months,” she said, “and know that I could not fill my obligations to my babies. They are better off.”

After the murders, Alberti spent time in the San Antonio Asylum. After her release, she returned to Galveston, and — free to achieve her goal at last — committed suicide.

Despite the reminders of human frailty and foibles hidden among the stones, every cemetery provides an amusement or two. Here, an angel seems to be pouting, and with good reason. The drape of Mardi Gras beads on the cross in front of her hasn’t changed in a year; she probably would enjoy more beads, in different colors.

I hope she can’t see this stone, visible in the photo of Dr. Haden’s crypt. It’s not only decorated with three times the number of beads that decorated it last year, it has snails ready to join the party.

In spring and summer, grackles qualify as Broadway’s most enthusiastic party animals. They feed among the flowers and nest in palm trees, while the boys show off for the girls from atop the gravestones.

More than birds and flowers flourish above the crypts. Trees and shrubbery seem willing to set up shop wherever conditions are right; someday, enterprising birds may nest in one of these oddly-rooted trees.

Many palms scattered throughout the cemeteries weren’t available for nesting this year, having lost their fronds to our February freeze. Still, grackles were flying into and out of this trio of palms next to an obelisk marking the grave of Abraham Parker Lufkin (1816-1887), a cotton merchant and Galveston City Council  member for whom town of Lufkin is named.

Hints of green suggest this palm, too, will survive and continue to provide a pretty backdrop for the memorial to paint store owner Joseph Rice; his wife Mary; and several of their children. Changing technology brought grief to this family when daughter Louisa, quite deaf, was killed when she walked in front of a street car whose motor she couldn’t hear.

Despite the intriguing histories contained within the Broadway cemeteries, and despite the beauty of the flowers decorating them, the greatest delight on my day of exploration was a gravestone I’d never before seen. The identity of the child is unknown, as is the hand of the sculptor. Even the inscription was invisible until the stone was raised some years ago, but its tenderness, and the love of those who chose its words, is unmistakable.

Who plucked this flower the angry gardner cried
The Master hath his mate replied
Thereat the gardner paused and held his peace

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Perfect Storm

Dislodged by autumn’s rising winds, acorns have begun bouncing and tumbling across the landscape, the sound of their fall exploding into the air like the percussive chatter of firecrackers.

If you’re standing near a car when the first gust strikes and the oaks release their seed-crop, the racket is astounding. If you’re sheltering beneath a tin roof, the sound amplifies and becomes deafening. A storm of ripened acorns may be less destructive than hail, but it’s no less impressive.

I experienced my first acorn storm in the Texas hill country, an area of valleys and ridges threaded through with several varieties of oak. The swell of redbuds in spring, the extravagant yellow blooms of prickly pear, the Virginia creeper climbing toward autumn’s true red: all delight the eyes, but the oak can surprise the ears.

I first heard of ‘acorn storms’ on a hill country porch. We’d been rocking and rail-sitting, drinking sweet tea and watching the deer, when someone mentioned the acorn crop. Stories began to flow about lean years and fat, hunger and starvation. As the tales grew more extravagant, I began to laugh. “You might as well be talking snow,” I said. “When you call it the Great Acorn Storm of ’78, you sound like a bunch of Yankees sitting around the woodstove, recalling a particularly memorable blizzard.”

In truth, acorn storms remain as unpredictable as blizzards. Even when the crop is good, there’s no sure way to know when they’ll fall, so there’s nothing to do but wait until the acorns’ great, clacking fall sounds the dinner bell for a multitude of woodland creatures.

My own first experience came just after midnight in a cabin outside Kerrville. A single acorn falling on the tin roof from the oak overhanging the cabin sounded like a gunshot. Roused from sleep to full, heart-pounding attention, I watched prowling shadows wrap their fingers around the window frames, stealthy and intrusive. The same gust of wind that separated the seed from its tree set the outside lantern swaying, giving life to the shadows, but as the wind laid and the lantern grew still, the moving shadows settled back into darkness, and the night grew still.

Convinced at last that neither man nor beast had come to claim my life, I settled back myself and began drifting into sleep. Then, another acorn fell and scrabbled down the roof, followed by a second. As the wind crossed the ridge and began swirling into the valley, branches bent and bowed as a torrent of acorns fell, filling the night with strange, percussive rhythms and the sharp, metallic clatter of their tumble down the roof. It was, I told friends later, a perfect storm.

Apart from their ability to compel the attention of inexperienced city folk, acorns are interesting. They come in assorted sizes and colors, and sport a variety of rakish caps. Smooth, small acorns from live oaks differ considerably from those of the Bur oak, a tree whose large acorn wears a furry, vaguely Russian-looking cap.

Regardless of size, all acorns are a critical part of the food chain. Squirrels and deer dote on them, as do mice, rabbits, foxes, and raccoons. A variety of birds also enjoy them: not only the wild turkey, jay, and woodpecker you might expect, but also water birds like the egrets.

The crop size varies from year to year, partly because of differences in the production cycle of different species. Bur oak production peaks every five to seven years, while live oaks produce extraordinary numbers of acorns every four to ten years. During so-called ‘mast years,’ walking beneath the trees can be like walking on ball bearings.

Publications from county agents, universities, and arborists note this wide variation in yearly acorn production. Most also include a caveat against attempting to draw other, more speculative conclusions from the number of acorns produced. ‘Speculative conclusions’ is a polite term for folk wisdom which believes in the predictive power of acorns. My own grandparents were certain an abundance of acorns signals a harsh winter to come, and a friend who grew up in Nebraska shared this bit of weather wisdom from the plains:  Busy squirrels, blizzards swirl.

Beyond natural cycles, the perfect combination of sunshine and rain can produce a bumper crop of acorns, just as the crop can be diminished by disease, drought, or freezing temperatures.

On the other hand, many believe that diseased or drought-stricken oaks produce more acorns, not fewer, as a way of ensuring the species’ survival. During the worst of our Texas droughts, someone always suggests that a bumper crop of acorns is a last gasp from water-deprived trees.

Arborists seem divided, but there is something both poignant and hopeful in the thought of thirsty, over-heated oaks setting their sights on survival by creating, nurturing, and finally shedding huge numbers of acorns. Potential trees, tiny bits of green-yet-to-be, the acorns cover the ground: huddled beneath their leaves, dreaming of the sunlight and rain that will transform their lives.

As it turns out, acorns also function as a handy metaphor for certain seasonal realities.

When my mail carrier mutters about the burden of delivering catalogs in the weeks before Christmas, I sympathize. I expect to receive a few old favorites — LL Bean, Vermont Country Store, American Spoon Foods — and a few still arrive to remind me of years when I sought special gifts — Orvis, Moonstruck, Whiteflower Farm. But somewhat oddly, this year’s catalogs are filling up the mailbox on a nearly daily basis. Most are from companies I’ve never heard of and with whom I’ve never placed an order: companies with names like Monticello, Acacia, Bits and Pieces and, in a bit of delicious coincidence, Lumber Liquidators.

As the mail carrier handed me the latest batch of glossy enticements, she caught my expression and said, “Nuts, isn’t it?” Indeed, it is. So many catalogs make me slightly uneasy. Designed and distributed to entice shoppers into purchases running the gamut from glittering baubles to simple trash, they seem an unintended sign of retail desperation.

In a diseased and drought-stricken economy, with the threat of frozen spending on the horizon, merchants across the country could be mistaken for slightly desperate oaks, attempting to ensure their survival by raining down catalogs like acorns around our feet.

As small businesses and restaurants close in my neighborhood; as cities board up against violence and looting, I hear the rumors and whispers beginning to circulate. An owner sells a boat here; a person quits a club there. A friend gives up her gym membership. A neighbor decides against lighted outdoor decorations for Christmas.  A single mother’s job is eliminated; a family reduces their income in order to homeschool a child. In the silence, each fact drops with a sharp, disconcerting sound; we look up, startled and anxious, wondering about its source and trying to interpret its meaning.

In Washington, of course, things are neither so grim nor so fraught with anxiety for the senators, staff, lobbyists, and representatives who make it their business to shape the life of a nation. In cities and states, murmured platitudes and demands for obedience apply to the many, but not to the few. As autumn deepens, as the winds of desolation rise and the clatter and clamor of failing businesses and falling hopes echo across the land, they somehow manage to live in their usual ways.

It may be that the sturdiness of their office walls and the splendor of their chambers shield them from the sounds we hear. But autumn has come to America, and the acorns are falling. We can only hope that some will take root, and flourish.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Freedoms, Large and Small

Long before the advent of The Weather Channel, weather existed. Metal feed-store thermometers dangling next to mops and buckets on the back stoop recorded summer’s rising temperatures, while pools of imaginary water shimmered above the asphalt: swirling, receding, and evaporating mirages that marked the beginning of summer as surely as any column of mercury.

In midsummer, heavy, breathless nights made sleep impossible. Even the heat-laden trees seemed to murmur and complain as we dragged cots from the house to lay beneath the stars, lured toward dreams by the chirring of unseen crickets.

When the feathery blades of grass began to crispen and brown beneath an unbearable sun, sprinklers appeared:  four revolving metal arms whirling ribbons of water across the lawn with a soft, rhythmic susurration.

We delighted in running and sliding through the water, collapsing into giggles when we miscalculated and collided with a friend. As play grew more exuberant, knees began to skin and occasional howls of protest drowned out our delighted screams. At that point, doors flew open and an adult — a mother, a grandparent, a neighbor — would yell, “You kids stop it now! Go find something else to do.”

Always, there was something to do. We might hop on our bikes and pedal to the corner gas station, where the small glass case overflowed with root beer barrels, Walnettos, and soft, pliable circus peanuts. Candy necklaces, candy cigarettes with tiny pink sugar flames, and Necco wafers were favorites; we bargained for our favorite flavors with the sort of savvy, ruthless determination a commodities trader might envy.

Twice each week, the Bookmobile parked in front of our grade school. In June, we attended Vacation Bible School before heading off to camp to enjoy hikes in the woods and evening campfires. Day camps found us transforming  popsicle sticks and plastic laces into mysterious, inexplicable treasures, or replicating famous paintings with dried-bean mosaics.

In short, summer was a time to explore: to try new things. We learned to throw softballs; to roller-skate; to push a lawn mower. Over time, we took on even greater challenges: walking with a friend to an uptown movie; daring the high dive; or navigating the town’s library stacks on our own.

If we hesitated before pushing new limits, it was our own timidity that held us back rather than the over-protectiveness of parents or caretakers. The rules were general, and common sense prevailed. Wear shoes on a bicycle. Be home by dark. Don’t eat all your candy at once. Never swim alone. Don’t fight. When you do fight, don’t hurt each other.

Beyond that, we were on our own.

The same sense of freedom infused our celebration of summer’s High Holy Day: the 4th of July.  After a morning parade, everyone set aside ball-playing and hopscotch to fold napkins, ice watermelons, or help to set the table. The menu itself was traditional, and the grilled hamburgers, sweet corn, thick-sliced tomatoes still warm from the vine, potato salad, baked beans, and pies that the women produced could have fed a threshing crew.  We ate our fill, leaving what remained on the table for late-comers, or anyone who couldn’t resist just one more spoonful.

If there was risk associated with the abandoned potato salad, we didn’t think much about it, and no one seemed to suffer. For that matter, we didn’t give much thought to possible dangers associated with our evening’s entertainment: boxes of red, white, and blue sparklers waiting to be burned on the front lawn before we headed to the park to watch the town’s fireworks display.

With today’s airwaves filled with a new holiday caution — to avoid combining fireworks with potentially explosive hand sanitizer — I began thinking about the pleasures of those childhood fireworks and remembered an earlier caution issued by a representative of a local hospital who said, rather off-handedly, that no child, under any circumstances, ever should be allowed to hold a sparkler.

By the time she finished listing the possible consequences — a blinded eye, a burned hand, a torched neighborhood — it was possible to imagine a child with a sparkler bringing down the whole of Western civilization.

Certainly restrictions on fireworks — even total bans — are reasonable in areas of drought or high population. However accidental, burning down an apartment complex or half a subdivision doesn’t fall into the category of celebration.

But fireworks safety in the absence of rain or the presence of crowds was not her concern. She meant to discourage every parent, in every circumstance, from allowing their child a traditional pleasure of Independence Day celebrations.

Today, her advice seems a precursor of a phenomenon increasingly obvious in our society: the so-called ‘nannie factor’ — the attempt of self-appointed experts or general busy-bodies to control the behavior of people around them. As C.S. Lewis famously wrote:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end: for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Lewis’s “omnipotent moral busy-bodies” also appear in Ian Chadwick’s essay on conformity. As Chadwick puts it:

Personal agendas do not benefit liberty: they hinder it. Pretty soon it’s dictatorship by committee – committees peopled with well-meaning, dedicated, but unelected members whose goals are to enforce their own personal vision of utopia. They erect increasingly restrictive rules that slowly squeeze the life out of a community and bleed it until it is colourless.

Such concerns may seem far removed from sparklers, sprinklers, and over-the-hill potato salad. On the other hand, as warnings against products and activities multiply daily, I find myself asking: are we in fact becoming a nation of nannies — Lawrence Durrell’s “old women of both sexes” determined to warn one another away not only from legitimate risk, but even from the richness of life?

The nation I love always has been a nation willing to allow its citizens to celebrate and live as they will: worshipping, parading, remembering, reciting, and above all participating in rituals that sparkle and sting like freedom itself.

 

In a world where sprinklers are allowed, might we slip and fall on the water-slicked grass bending beneath our feet? Of course. Could we over-indulge in tainted foods and suffer the consequences? Certainly. Will the sun or sparklers burn; the bicycle tip; the bone break; the puppy nip? No doubt, for anything can happen in a world where nothing is guaranteed. Given the realities of an unpredictable world, we need to exercise both caution and care on behalf of those who live around us.

But too much of the wrong kind of caring can lead to paralysis and disengagement, particularly when what passes for care is little more than an expression of thinly-disguised fear. For those who live in fear of what ‘might’ happen; for those who hunger to control what cannot be controlled; and especially for those who prefer to deny that brokenness, contingency, and pain always will be a part of life, there never will be enough caring.

“Don’t you care about your children?” ask the experts. “Don’t you care about your health?” “Don’t you care about physical security, or the acceptance and approval of others?” Certainly, we care. But we care even more for life and freedom; for speaking with dignity and demanding truth; for celebrating and enjoying the multitude of gifts freely offered by the world.

In truth, when we choose to worry less and participate more, we often discover even the most dire warnings dissolving beneath the summer’s rising warmth. We run through the sprinkler without slipping. The sparklers light up the night like the stars, and the last bit of warm, wilty potato salad gets eaten, just because it’s there.

As the children fall asleep, we tend to them in the darkness as the world itself sighs everyone home: safe, sound, and free as a bird crying through the deep summer night, careless and carefree at once.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Armadillo Whispers

If it weren’t for the Alamo, bluebonnets, longhorn steers, and Willie Nelson, I’ve no doubt the lowly, nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)  would trundle to the top of the list of Texas icons.

It’s a strange one, this tank-like creature. Named for nine parallel scutes neatly tucked between somewhat larger hip and shoulder scutes, it’s the only armadillo species in North America. Whatever outsiders think of the creature, it’s been granted status as the official small mammal of Texas, and everyone from dry cleaning establishments to bars seems eager to cash in on its popularity.

Austin’s beloved and just slightly weird Armadillo World Headquarters may be gone, but Gary P. Nunn still brings a tear to the eye of displaced Texans everywhere with his plaintive longing to be “Home with the Armadillo,” and more school districts than you might imagine have adopted the animal as a mascot.

Still, drivers on Texas highways sometimes suspect the only armadillos left in the state are dead ones. Most armadillo sightings involve unfortunate creatures who’ve met calamitous ends. You see them everywhere — tipped onto their backs with feet splayed heavenward, tumbled into ditches, or smeared across the concrete.

One reason they’re so often killed along highways is their strange ‘startle reflex.’ They’ll sometimes turn and run when they sense danger, but just as often they’ll use their powerful muscles to launch themselves straight up into the air.

Animal predators find the unexpected behavior so surprising they stop in their tracks, giving the armadillo a chance to scuttle off to safety. Unfortunately, jumping into the air in front of an F-150 isn’t so effective, and another armadillo bites the dust.

They’re better at crossing rivers. Burrowers by nature, they’ve developed an ability to hold their breath for minutes at a time while face-deep in dirt. Confronted by a stream, an armadillo simply takes a deep breath and walks across the bottom. If a river’s too wide for the creature to ford by walking, it fills its intestines with air and starts swimming, having become its own personal flotation device.

Away from the highways, finding a live armadillo is easier than you’d think. Their preference for a diet of ants, beetles, grubs, and spiders means they gravitate toward gardens and lawns, and they’re fond of roaming wooded areas filled with moisture and decay.

Armadillo stalking can be great fun. Their hearing and sense of smell are highly developed, but their eyesight is poor. If you happen upon one browsing for dinner and remain very, very quiet, you can walk up to it from behind, reach down, and grab it at the base of its tail.

What’s next is up to you. Catch-and-release is the best option, although some people have taken it home for dinner. During the Great Depression, East Texans frequently ate the creatures, calling them ‘Hoover hogs’ — a reference to the President they blamed for the Depression and a nod to the armadillo’s pork-like flavor.

Over the years, armadillo chili gained favor. At Apelt’s Armadillo farm in Comfort, Texas, you could have armadillo barbeque, sold from this little stone building at the side of the road.

 

Charles Apelt, a German immigrant who came to this country in the late 1800s, didn’t begin by cooking armadillo. Instead, his background in wicker furniture-making and basketry, combined with an unexpected new-world experience, launched a unique and remarkable Texas business.

One day, while walking about his farm, a strange little animal sprang up and began to hop away. Mr. Apelt picked up a stone and with excellent aim hit the animal’s head. Otherwise, the plated armor would have turned the missile aside, like the armor on a battleship.
When he gathered up his game he surveyed it with wonder. When he went out to tack that hide to the barn in some sort of fashion, the hot sun had dried it until it began to curl up. He picked it up and instinctively he said, “Basket.” Then he fastened the end of the tail to the head and made a handle… As it dried he shaped it with his hand, and lo, the first armadillo shell basket that the world ever knew became a reality.
Charles Apelt on the steps of his showroom at the Armadillo Farm

After perfecting a way to preserve the hides, Apelt opened his factory in 1898 and sold 40,000 baskets in the first six years. Plain baskets cost $2.50, while fancier versions sold for $4 and up.

Human creativity being what it is, the Apelts soon began innovating. Customers could purchase fringed or unfringed floor lamps, table lamps, bed lamps and wall fixtures – all made from armadillo shells. As production peaked in the 1920s, fifty hunters were employed to supply the critters, and at least a cook or two was hired to turn all that meat into barbeque.

As demand for their novelty grew, the Apelts supplemented the supply of armadillos provided by hunters by actually “farming” the creatures in an elaborate series of concrete burrows and tunnels built into their front yard. Not all became baskets — many were sold to zoos, medical research facilities and private individuals seeking an unusual pet.

The family owned the business for seven decades. After Charles’s death, his second wife Martha took it over until her death. Daughter Ruth Dowdy assumed control in 1947 and moved the operation to Salado, Texas, but it returned to Comfort in 1951.

At that point, Apelt’s daughter-in law Kathryn took over, continuing the traditions of the farm and producing the same baskets and shades that had made it famous, shipping them to shops and individual customers world-wide.

This vintage advertising card shows a display of Apelt products on one side, and a snippet of explanatory text on the other:

Published by Chas. Apelt, Wholesale and Retail dealer in Original Armadillo Baskets, Colored Souvenir Postals, Comfort, Texas.
Its shell or armor is fashioned into pretty and novel baskets, suitable for cut flowers and hanging baskets. The shells are also lined on the inside with bright colored silk, making very beautiful work baskets for the use of the ladies.

Sybil Sutherland of Kerrville remembers her aunt, Vida Lowrance, working for the Apelts.

She would line the armadillo baskets with bright colored satin, the kind of colors you don’t usually see anywhere else. Lots of kids around here would go out and catch armadillos and sell them for a quarter apiece to the farm, and put them in tow sacks. They caught them by the thousands! I went out with them sometimes, too, with a boy named Paul Harbin. Even though he used a crutch, he was usually ahead of us all.”

Clyde Beaver remembers being one of the kids who hunted them, and the need for finesse.

You had to be careful not to pull them too hard by the tail, or you’d yank it off,” he said. “If they got down into a hole, you’d have to just pull on them gently, and get them out little by little.

Just as an aside, it’s worth noting that, had the Apelt Family started their business in the Pleistocene era, they might have been able to expand their offerings even farther.

The Gylptodon, one of the biggest ancient armadillos and an ancestor of our Texas cutie, originated in South America before moving northward, perhaps as far as Texas. Like the nine-banded armadillo, it was well-armored, with a dome-shaped body, a helmet-like head, and bony rings around its tail.

Glyptodons survived well into early historical times, going extinct about 10,000 years ago, Huge and slow-moving, they probably were hunted to extinction by early humans, who no doubt favored them not only for food but also for shelter. Evidence exists that early South American natives sheltered from snow and rain under Glyptodon shells — shells roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Today, cottage industries based on nine-banded armadillos have become extinct as the Glyptodon, and the Apelts’ Armadillo Farm is due for more changes. Several owners have held the property since the business closed in 1971, but thanks to antique dealer Harriet Gorman of Comfort, Texas, and her late husband Bill, the house and its outbuildings were brought back to life.

The old Armadillo Display Room (where Charles Apelt is shown sitting, above) became a three-room cottage: serving as a home for Harriet during two years of the restoration process.

The newest addition to the property, a Texas State Historical Marker, was sponsored by Walter Apelt, Charles’ grandson. Conveniently placed for inspection by the antiquers and vacationers who frequent the area, it provides a brief introduction to the complex and interesting story.

Tonight, the glyptodons are gone. The hunters with their dogs have disappeared into the darkness; the basket-shapers and lamp-makers, seamstresses and cooks have faded into the hills.

With the restoration of the house completed, passers-by who notice the sign  stop for photographs, and ponder what they cannot understand. In the little stone house by the road, barbeque has been replaced by memories of Hill Country life — the pungent, smoky taste of meat exchanged for the taste of another time.

Amid these implacable changes, the armadillo still roams. Burrowing in peace along the moonlit banks of the Guadalupe, foraging amidst the sweet, bending grasses, rooting up bits of history embedded into the banks of its ancestors’ creeks, it murmurs to itself as it passes.

Perhaps it remembers. Perhaps not. Disappearing into the damp, moonlight-soaked earth, it leaves behind only the faintest tracing of life along the trails of the night — the whisper of the armadillo.

Comments are welcome.
For  my encounter with an actual armadillo,  seeThere’s No Place Like Homeon Lagniappe.