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.

The Poets’ Birds ~ The Great Prairie Podfluffer

More rare than the Phoenix but as Texan as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Great Prairie Podfluffer appears in late summer or early fall, hidden among flocks of migrating grackles or brown-headed cowbirds. Always well camouflaged, it’s sometimes mistaken for an ordinary plant; you might notice its similarity to a dry and splitting Green Milkweed pod. Still, a closer look reveals its dark eye and sharp beak: both helpful for nabbing insects or the occasional field mouse.

Because of its rarity, Podfluffer poetry is in short supply; unlike the swallow or lark, few sing its praises. Had Emily Dickinson come across the creature, I’m sure she would have captured its spirit in her inimitable way, but only Lewis Carroll has left us a few lines to suggest he might have known the Podfluffer.  Enjoy Mr. Carroll’s “Little Birds” and judge for yourself.

Little Birds are dining
Warily and well,
Hid in mossy cell:
Hid, I say, by waiters
Gorgeous in their gaiters –
I’ve a Tale to tell.
Little Birds are feeding
Justices with jam,
Rich in frizzled ham:
Rich, I say, in oysters
Haunting shady cloisters –
That is what I am.
Little Birds are teaching
Tigresses to smile,
Innocent of guile:
Smile, I say, not smirkle –
Mouth a semicircle,
That’s the proper style!
Little Birds are sleeping
All among the pins,
Where the loser wins:
Where, I say, he sneezes
When and how he pleases –
So the Tale begins.
Little Birds are writing
Interesting books,
To be read by cooks:
Read, I say, not roasted –
Letterpress, when toasted,
Loses its good looks.
Little Birds are playing
Bagpipes on the shore,
Where the tourists snore:
“Thanks!” they cry. “‘Tis thrilling!
Take, oh take this shilling!
Let us have no more!”
Little Birds are bathing
Crocodiles in cream,
Like a happy dream:
Like, but not so lasting –
Crocodiles, when fasting,
Are not all they seem!
Little Birds are choking
Baronets with bun,
Taught to fire a gun:
Taught, I say, to splinter
Salmon in the winter –
Merely for the fun.
Little Birds are hiding
Crimes in carpet-bags,
Blessed by happy stags:
Blessed, I say, though beaten –
Since our friends are eaten
When the memory flags.
Little Birds are tasting
Gratitude and gold,
Pale with sudden cold:
Pale, I say, and wrinkled –
When the bells have tinkled,
And the Tale is told.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Christmas ~ Once More, With Felines

Many of you met Dixie Rose and her merry Cat Carols some years ago, but newer readers haven’t had the pleasure. She’s no longer with me to celebrate the season, but her legacy lives on. In this difficult year, her carols — including one never before published — seem a fitting tribute, and a fine bit of fun.

If you dared to laugh at the antlers, you laughed at your peril. That business-like look in the eyes of my beautiful calico demanded respect. Dixie Rose (short for Dixie Rose, Center of the Universe and Queen of All She Surveys) loved Christmas, and she intended to be ready when it arrived. I never attempted to stand in her way.

Dixie arrived on my doorstep as an unloved, four-month-old stray who became my first real pet. During my childhood, the painted turtle met an unfortunate end, and the birthday puppy that terrified me with its enthusiasm had to be sent away, but even the feisty fox squirrel and standoffish prairie dog that arrived later and stayed longer hardly qualified as pets.

Dixie Rose was a different matter. A beautiful, spoiled creature, she brought me great happiness despite her quirks, and eventually she came to accept me with bemused tolerance.

During our first Christmas season together, it became obvious that old routines would have to be adjusted. Tree trimming and gift wrapping ended in chaos as shredded ribbon, broken ornaments, and pulled-down swags marked her passage through the house.

After she tipped the tree a second time and then a third, I surrendered. We celebrated with a bare tree weighted at its base with several feet of galvanized chain. No candles burned. No poinsettias glowed. Presents piled up in the closet until time for humans to unwrap them, and all things sparkly were banned due to my furry darling’s obsessive appetite for tinsel, glitter, and gold.

As Christmas Day approached, Dixie and I engaged in sharp disagreement about the nature of true celebration. Things weren’t always good that year, and the phrase “This hurts me more than it hurts you” became as common as “Merry Christmas.”

Eventually, I began trying to distract her and amuse myself with the first of the Cat Carols. Before long, she began to contribute her own verses. (Click any title for the original version.)

Wreck the Halls

Wreck the halls all decked with holly,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la la-la-la.
Sheer destruction is so jolly,
Fa-la…
Tip the tree with all its treasures,
Fa-la…
Shred the presents for good measure!
Fa-la…
Fast away the fur-ball passes,
Fa-la…
To wreak havoc on the masses,
Fa-la…
Swinging through the punch and cookies,
Fa-la…
Snarling at the reindeer rookies,
Fa-la…

When I included the lyrics to “Wreck the Halls” in Dixie’s Christmas card to her vet, he suggested she keep writing. So, she did.

Stalking in a Winter Wonderland

Collars ring, are you listening?
In the lane, eyes are glistening…
The moon is so bright, we’re happy tonight,
Stalking in a winter wonderland.
Gone away are the bluebirds,
Here to stay are the new birds.
They sing their sweet songs as we skulk along,
Stalking in a winter wonderland.
In the meadow we can build a snow mouse,
And pretend that he is fat and brown.
He’ll say “Are you hungry?” We’ll say, “No, mouse,
but we’ll save you for dinner on the town.”
Later on, we’ll retire
For a snooze by the fire,
And dream of the prey we’ll catch the next day,
Stalking in a winter wonderland.

Of course, not everyone loves the kitty-cats, so there’s even a song for them. I don’t advocate shooting cats (or dogs, or people, for that matter), but I do understand how pure frustration might lead to this:

Jingle Bells

Jingle bells, shotgun shells, there’s that danged old cat!
Get my gun, let’s have some fun, I know just where he’s at!
Jingle bells, oh, Hell’s bells, now he’s on the run!
If I find my glasses, that cat’s hunting days are done.
A day or two ago, I thought I’d feed the birds,
I grabbed a bag of seed, a second and a third.
But halfway ‘cross the yard, I saw the bushes shake,
It was my neighbor’s scroungy cat, a big orange tom named Jake.
Oh, jingle bells, shotgun shells, (repeat chorus)…..
I love to feed the birds, it makes me feel so glad.
But Jake, that danged old cat, he makes me so darned mad!
He’s not content to eat a lizard or a mouse,
He wants to eat my pretty birds: that cat’s a stinking louse!
Oh, jingle bells, shotgun shells (repeat chorus)

Like children, cats need to be reminded that the magical night is not far off, and there’s a cautionary tale just for them:

Santa Cat is Coming to Town

Oh, you’d better not hiss, you’d better not bite,
You’d better not tempt the dog to a fight;
Santa Cat is coming to town!
He’s making a list, checking it twice,
Gonna find out who chased all those mice,
Santa Cat is coming to town!
He knows when you’ve been scratching,
He knows who you’ve outfoxed,
He knows if you’ve been in a snit
And refused your litter box!
With potted cat grass and catnip-filled balls,
Snuggly warm beds and mice from the malls,
Santa Cat is coming to town.

Eventually Dixie’s online friends joined the fun, sending along their own contributions to the songfest. Housecats themselves, Mister Man and Miss Moo knew how to have a good time despite not being allowed to stalk in the great outdoors.

Hark! The Housebound Felines Sing

Hark! the housebound felines sing,
Glory to the milk-jug ring!
Mice on earth and squirrels reviled,
Even indoors we are wild!
Warily our tails we twitch as
Through the halls our toys we pitch, while
With triumphant meows proclaim,
Cats do have superior brains!
Hark, the housebound felines sing,
Glory to the milk jug ring!

Eventually, Dixie began working on another song, but while “O, Christmas Bush” bubbled away in our lyrical stewpot, she departed this mortal coil, leaving only a fragment of song:

O, Christmas Bush

O, Christmas Bush, O, Christmas Bush,
I sat upon you with my tush.
I did not see you lying there;
Thank God you weren’t a prickly pear.
O Christmas Bush, O, Christmas Bush,
I do believe you’re flattened.

It’s pure silliness of course: just another bit of holiday excess. On the other hand, excess isn’t necessarily bad, and even silly excess can become a path toward truth.

Singing these seasonal parodies to Dixie Rose, I often thought of another, joy-filled carol. Remarkably, we don’t sing, “Joy to human beings: joy to those who walk upright, drive cars, open too many credit card accounts, and are nasty on social media.” We don’t sing, “Joy to the church-goers, the faithful, the worthy, the few.” No, we sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king.”

The joy we sing is meant for the whole world: for stars and dirt, mountains and seas, trees, rocks, valleys and hills, and every creature that dwells within. While human hearts prepare, heaven and nature are singing out this truth: the gifts of the season are meant for all. The coming of truth and grace is meant for the world as a whole. We who inhabit that world, tracing a path upon its soil and gazing upon its stars, are called to sing its praises, too.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or whether you don’t, whether you take the promises of the season seriously or simply enjoy the traditions and the festivity, accept these bits of silliness as a gift from Dixie Rose. Feel free to laugh at them, sing them to yourself, or pass them on to friends. Believe me – an entire room filled with pet-lovers singing these songs can be hilarious, and they’ve been known to bring a smile even to the face of the most anti-feline Scrooge.

As for Dixie Rose, eventually she learned she could avoid kitty-jail by avoiding kitty-misbehavior, and we trimmed our tree in peace. Free to hang ornaments even on the lowest branches, and to display cookies and gifts without fear, I prepared our celebrations while she spent her afternoons sleeping in the low, slanting light. I often imagined visions of catnip-plums dancing in her head as she awaited, in perfect peace and joy, whatever gifts would come next.

In this season of Advent, this season of waiting and anticipation, may we all be blessed with such peace and joy.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Such a Nice Fruitcake!

Johnny Carson said it, although I never believed it. Every year he began the Christmas season by reminding us that “There’s only one fruitcake in the world. It’s been passed around from person to person since time immemorial, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try. You’ll never escape The Fruitcake.”

Of course his little joke wasn’t based in fact. Every year, multitudes of fruitcakes march like overzealous Nutcrackers into the heart of the holiday season, overflowing store shelves and filling up catalogs. How essentially good ingredients — fruit and cake — can be combined into a ‘treat’ both gummy and dry is beyond me, but the fruitcake people have managed it. I prefer not to waste my holiday calories on something that appears to have been circulating since the days of the Roman Empire, and I’ve always wished Carson were right. If only one fruitcake existed, it would be easier to escape the ghastly conconction.

Behind every fruitcake, of course, lurks a fruitcake-baker, and over the years various friends tried to convince me they’d finally discovered the secret to truly good fruitcake: soaking the raisins in bourbon, pouring brandy over the finished cake, substituting walnuts for pecans, eliminating the candied pineapple. Despite their opinions, I never wavered in my conviction that fruitcake was dense, dry and tasteless: except when it was gummy, sticky and tasteless. It was a grim excuse for a dessert, and a terrible holiday tradition.

When it came to fruitcakes, I was following in my father’s footstep. If co-workers or business associates gave Dad a fruitcake, presenting it to him with smiles so big you’d think they’d just handed over the keys to a Mercedes, Dad always responded graciously. He’d thank the givers profusely, then rid himself of the cake as soon as their backs were turned. Sometimes he sliced it up and left it in the coffee room at work. Sometimes he gave it to the postman. Now and then, he put one into a gag-gift exchange, counting himself lucky if he received a fishing lure or risqué necktie in return.

As the fruitcakes piled up, he always gave at least one to my grandparents’ neighbor, Sadie. One memorable Christmas, Sadie’d had enough. She gave the fruitcake to my unknowing grandparents and, ever willing to share, Grandma sliced up the cake and presented it to my dad. “Sadie! Such a nice woman!” she said. “See what she gave us — a fruitcake! Have a piece! Have two!” And so he did; my poor father playing the role of the good son, eating the fruitcake that had come home to roost.

One year, after lugging home the biggest fruitcake we’d ever seen, he suggested leaving it in the pantry for a year to see what happened. In the end, nothing happened. We opened the fruitcake a year later, sliced it up and gave it a try. It didn’t taste any better or worse than any other fruitcake. That was the year my frugal father began tossing out any fruitcake that came through the door. Under normal circumstances, wasting food wasn’t allowed in our house, but, as my ever-reasonable father pointed out, fruitcake doesn’t meet any of the normal criteria for food.

Edward Gorey’s Fruitcake Toss

It seems we were on the cutting edge. As more people became willing to admit their distaste for traditional fruitcake, the good folk of Manitou Springs, Colorado caught on and ritualized the tossing of the fruitcake. Their Great Fruitcake Toss became a Chamber of Commerce event involving catapults, relay teams, high school science classes, and spatula races. Even out-of-town visitors could participate; local motels provided personalized, heavy-duty fruitcakes to anyone wanting to join in the fun.

Eventually, I discovered fruitcake-free zones scattered around the world, but once I moved to Texas, there was no avoiding that apotheosis of fruitcake production, Corsicana’s Collin Street Bakery. As the Handbook of Texas notes, the place has quite a history.

In 1896 August Weidmann, a young German immigrant, opened a bakery on Collin Street in Corsicana, with financial backing from Tom McElwee, a local cotton buyer and opera-house proprietor. Weidmann’s specialty was fruitcake baked by a recipe he had brought with him from his native country. McElwee suggested the trade name DeLuxe Fruitcake for the product.
In 1906 the business was moved to a location on Sixth Avenue, and there McElwee opened an exclusive hotel on the second floor of the bakery. Enrico Caruso, John J. McGraw, and Will Rogers were among the celebrities who stayed at the hotel at various times. In 1914 a Ringling Brothers circus troupe, in Corsicana for a performance, bought dozens of DeLuxe Fruitcakes to give as Christmas gifts to friends and relatives all over the United States and in Europe. As a result, the bakery received an overwhelming number of orders from the recipients for more cakes, and the company’s mail-order business resulted.

When friends discovered I’d never eaten a Collin Street cake, a fruitcake party was arranged. Everyone brought their own version of fruit-and-cake, with the famous Texas fruitcake rounding out the menu. There were delicious offerings, to be sure: pear tortes and mincemeat tarts, apple-raisin-and-walnut cakes, povitica, and panettone. I brought along my California fruitcake, a concoction of apricots, dates, and pecans that fit in nicely.

After a few hours of coffee, desserts, and chit-chat, the Collin Street cake was sliced and passed around. I ate my portion, graciously agreeing, as my father would have, that it was very nice: even as I  thought to myself, I’ll not be buying one of these things. When the hostess asked if anyone would like to add a fruitcake to the order she was placing, I declined. And that, I assumed, was that.

And so it was, until the day I found an unexpected parcel slip in my mailbox. In those pre-Amazon locker days, the manager accepted shipments, but we had to dig through the boxes ourselves. After several minutes of looking, I couldn’t find my package. Hearing my sigh of exasperation, the manager looked around the corner. “How could you miss it?” she said. “It’s right in front of you.”

And so it was. On a box imprinted with a scene that combined frontier Texas with a romanticized winter landscape, I saw my address, and the words Collin Street Bakery. Balancing the box on one hand, I realized it had to be one of Corsicana’s finest: a traditional fruitcake in their famous red tin, studded with pecans and weighing nearly six pounds.

Convinced someone from the fruitcake party had decided to play a joke, I opened the box. The enclosed gift card  bore the name of a friend who lives in England. The fruitcake wasn’t a joke occasioned by my criticisms of the ghastly concoction, but a lovely, seasonal gift sent from the Fruitcake Gods by way of England to affirm Johnny Carson’s truth: You cannot escape The Fruitcake.

After calling my friend to thank her, I carried the cake to my mother’s apartment, and brought it out after dinner. “Oh!” she said. “A fruitcake — and from the Collin Street Bakery! Wherever did you find this?” While I served coffee and cut a few slices, I explained it had been sent as a gift, and laughed as my mother channeled my grandmother. “Oh!” she said. “I remember Jean. Such a nice woman. So nice of her to send you a cake!”

While I picked my way around the candied cherries and citron, Mom made her way through three slices. “It’s too bad,” she said. “I wish your dad was here. He always did love a good fruitcake.” Thinking of the multitudes of fruitcakes my dad had disposed of, I grinned as I gathered the empty plates, knowing that Dad would have been proud to see me tucking the remnants of this one next to Mom’s coffee pot.

“You’d better take your fruitcake with you,” she said, as I headed for the door. Just for a moment, I paused, then said, “I’ll leave it here. Jean will be pleased to know I shared it with you, and the next time I get an urge for fruitcake, I’ll just stop by and cut myself a slice.”

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