18. January 2007 · Comments Off on Into the Borderlands · Categories: General, History, Old West, Pajama Game

And I met a kind man
He guarded the border
He said, “You don’t need papers,
I’ll let you go,
I can tell that you love her
By the look in your eyes, now”.
She’s the rose of the desert
In old Mexico….*

I wrote here once before of the shifting cultural terrain of the borderlands, of how the wash of people back and forth across the Texas-Mexico border over the last century or so made it extraordinarily difficult to have some kind of firm opinion about the current rush of illegal aliens from Mexico. Most people are truly torn about it, but the current rash of cross-border incidents and the open and ongoing warfare in those towns just to the south of the border give pause for concern. Just this last week a post on the American side of the border, guarded by National Guard soldiers had a brief, tense encounter with a heavily armed party on Mexican intruders… the first time this has happened with the National Guard.

But not the first time in history, either recent or long-past; the borderlands are fluid. I realized this only when I started doing the heavy research for the next book (“The Company of Noble Men” – A Thrilling Epic of the Settlement of Texas’ German Colonies, with operatic levels of drama, passion, murder, stolen children and revenge… plus a heroine who can beat the crap out of Scarlett O’Hara every day of the week and still have energy to slap around that simp Melanie. I’ve a detailed chapter outline finished, and six of them completed already…Where was I? Oh… border. Texas. Two way traffic. Gotcha)

I mean there was a heap of traffic here, going back and forth: a lot of it not strictly open and above-board in the legal sense for practically the last 200 years. Some was open, with the blessings of the governments involved, some with only quiet sanctions. The Texas War for Independence was just a particularly fractious divorce, the opening round in a long and contentious relationship… which if it were between two humans would likely show up on one of these Jerry Springer episodes where they throw the furniture at each other. It’s the sort of love-hate relationship which can exist when you know each other really, really well.

The historian Charles Robinson, in writing a history of the Texas Rangers, remarked that by the mid 19th century, Anglo Texans and Mexicans had become more like each other than they each would be comfortable admitting. Anglo Texans absorbed a taste for tortillas and hot chili, and a preference for working cattle from horseback from Mexican vaqueros— the touchiness about personal honor and affinity for violence was already there, courtesy of the Scots-Irish borderers. And perhaps the Mexican borderers absorbed something subtler from their Anglo neighbors, or maybe it was just the distance from Mexico City; one senses a sort of energy, a striving for something better than what they had, and a willingness to do the necessary to get it, even if a political culture that would have made it possible was tantalizingly just out of reach.

So, in between open war are all the incidents consigned to the footnotes of the history books:
Who knows that the Mexican general Adrian Woll raided San Antonio in 1842, capturing the entire district court which was in session; lawyers, judges, defendants and all… and was pursued all the way back to the border by a harassing force of Texas Rangers? Or that a retaliatory expedition after Woll’s raid was captured, marched into the interior of Mexico, and ordered “decimated” by none other than General Santa Anna; that is, one in ten to be executed, those to be chosen to live or die by drawing black or white beans from a pitcher?
Has anyone save those who live around Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley know of “Cortinas’ War” in 1859, when a hot-headed rancher, Juan Nepomuceno Cortinas raised a party of bravos and the flag of rebellion and took over Brownsville for a time? Or that his actions set off a cycle of retaliation that was only halted for the time being by the diplomacy (and let it be admitted, a very large club) wielded by the US Army commander in Texas, one Robert E. Lee?

During our Civil War, the Union blockade was broken by transporting supplies through Mexico: During the Mexican Civil War, Pancho Villa, and his men raided Columbus, New Mexico… probably for supplies to carry on with his war. Each of these conflicts sent refugees from the fighting and once the fighting was done, die-hards from the loosing side over the border. And some of this is only a little removed from living memory: a frequent reader emailed recently, that her grandfather ranched in west Texas, and used to buy cattle from Pancho Villa, who would drive up in a Model A Ford to collect payment, after his men had delivered the cattle. And when I was a senior in high school, I met an elderly man at the local Republican Party HQ who while we were supposed to be stuffing envelopes, told me how as a very young cavalryman, he had been part of Black Jack Pershing’s expedition into Mexico, chasing after Pancho Villa. And so it goes. I sense that what is happening now is just more of the same old, same old.

No, history isn’t past. And it isn’t even over.

(*Evangelina – Hoyt Axton)

16. January 2007 · Comments Off on Global Warming??? · Categories: Critters, Domestic, General, Pajama Game

As best I know, Al Gore has not come to San Antonio lately to bang on about global warming; this winter ice storm is just one of the usual South Texas winter things, only colder, icier and more of an inconvenience than usual. Ice, freezing rain, bitter north wind; all the elevated highways and overpasses closed, school classes cancelled, and as many people as possible being urged to stay home. As Blondie lamented this morning to the Lesser Weevil:
“Ya suppose if we gave you the leash, you could just walk yourself?”

It’s a good thing that I still have all of my serious winter gear from when we lived in Utah. At the rate I wear my winter parka, insulated boots, gloves and other necessary winter stuff, they will last me the rest of my natural life, since they only get good use maybe three or four days of the year. This being one of them: our version of a snow day. Residents of northern tier states are laughing their asses off, though. By their standards, this is a good winter day. Only the ice all over the roads is cause for pause. I’ve seen these folks here drive on wet streets, the last thing they need is black ice. I am not keen on being anywhere in the vicinity when Bubbah from the West Side zips up to the big intersection at Thousand Oaks and Perrin-Beitel in his monster SUV, slams on the brakes as he hits a patch of ice and spins all the way down to the Post Office, scattering other cars before him like ninepins before a 3,000 pound bowling ball. I can drive on ice, and in snow, I just have no faith in anyone else on the roads around here being able to do so. After all, they only have to do so about once every five years, and that is just not enough to keep those skills current.

At least we had plenty of warning about this cold front; so all the tender plants are in the garage, or under cover on the back porch; so far the only potted plant badly affected is Blondie’s painted coleus… which may or may not make it. I just don’t think it is any more sheltered in the garage than it is on the back porch.

We walked up the hill with the dogs at about midmorning: treacherous patches of ice in odd places on driveways and on the sidewalks. Spike the toy shi-tzu is always invigorated by cold; must be all that fur. She bounded ahead, displaying every evidence of keen enjoyment. Sometimes I amuse myself by picturing a team of six or eight little dogs like her, all hitched to a miniature sled and dragging it through the Arctic snow. Even if it is a breed which is supposed to be pampered lap-dogs all, I suspect that Spike and her tiny kind actually have dreams of glory, and heroic deeds. Today she skidded on a couple of patches of ice, and did not venture onto a lawn more than once. The trees, the lawns and parked cars are all glazed over with a layer of ice, crackling underfoot as if you are wading through cornflakes. The scattering of trees which still have leaves are coated also; the north wind rattles the leaves and branches like bamboo castanets. We met one of our neighbors, grimly scraping ice off his windshield with a credit card, and we both tried to remember how far down in our respective glove-boxes are buried the plastic ice scrapers.

Blondie was to start classes today; something she was looking forward to after three weeks of being bored out of her mind at home, but classes at most schools today are cancelled. Practically every elevated overpass and freeway ramp is closed, so even if she did still have classes, it would take at least half the day to get across town to them. Public events and lectures have also been cancelled or postponed, and a couple of corporations and city offices are either closed, or ask only essential employees to come to work. No, this is a day to stay home, and stay warm, and work from home. My sometime boss, the real estate broker doesn’t even want me to venture out: the ice is even worse in his neighborhood. And most unusual for here, it looks to carry on for more than one day. It’s rare for a winter storm to discommode San Antonio for more than one day at a time, but this one looks like going for a record. No word on snow, though. It last snowed seriously here about twenty years ago, and people are still talking about it as if it were a blizzard that left fifteen-foot deep drifts.

I’ll flog away on the next book, and Blondie is going to do some loaves of bread: all you can do on a day like this! That is, as soon as we melt the ice around the door lock to Blondie’s car. Global warming, indeed.

15. January 2007 · Comments Off on New Beginnings, Brought to you by the Internet · Categories: Critters, General, Pajama Game

It’s almost 1am, and I’m sitting here, wide awake. Yes, I should be sleeping. Yes, tomorrow is a work-day. Yes, I’ve been awake all day, and should be tired enough to sleep, and Yes, I’ll regret it tomorrow if I don’t get some sleep tonight.


Tomorrow is a new beginning for 2 beings. A new start for two critters who should be well past the stage of beginning again. There’s a door in my heart, that was slowly, and sadly closed last September (but not locked!), that is open again, letting air and light into a dusty room. Tomorrow evening, that room will no longer be empty.

Honestly, it’s not empty now. It’s cluttered with memories of my little nuisance, Jessie the Italian Greyhound, but the tears that I’ve shed in the last four months have helped to clean the clutter and the dust away. It’s a good thing, because now there’s room for Zoe.

Zoe is a 12-yr old Italian Greyhound who had to be re-homed by her current mom. Her current mom is actually her second mom – her first mom wanted to euthanize her at the age of 7, I don’t know why. Her 2nd mom was a vet tech at the time, and when Zoe was brought in, instead of going to the rainbow bridge, she went to a new home (with the first owner’s approval). Her 2nd mom recently lost her job, and the housing that went with it. While she has a new job, she doesn’t have dog-friendly housing, and has no idea when her life will get settled again.

She’s tried for weeks to find a new home for her little angel – the rescue groups were full, and the shelters told her that a 12-yr old dog is unadoptable, and if she came to a shelter, she would probably leave by way of the Rainbow Bridge.

In desperation, she poured out her frustrations on a message board. An internet friend of hers, somewhere in Texas, made it her personal mission to find Zoe a home in the day or two that were left before the shelter was the only option. Someone told her about a greyhound message board, and suggested she post there. None of these people have ever met in real life – they only know each other from online.

Late Friday afternoon, she registered on the message board and wrote a post about Zoe. She posted two pictures, and I fell in love as soon as I saw them.

zoe 1 zoe 2

Eight hours, sixteen emails, and two phone calls later, it was all over. Zoe would be mine. We just had to get her from central Florida to northern Georgia.

Not a problem! My dog-sitter’s husband is in southern Florida this weekend, at some kind of airshow (he sells small airplanes). He’d be driving back to Georgia on Monday, and Zoe’s current location is about 30-45 minutes north of where he is. So he’ll be stopping in the morning to pick her up, and then they’ll stop every 3 hours on the way so that she can relieve herself, and by 8:00pm tomorrow, she’ll be in my arms, being fussed over and told how beautiful she is.

Her current mom tells me that she’s in perfect health, with no known medical issues. She expects Zoe to live another five years, which is a good lifespan for an IG. For me, it’s not how many years she has left that matters. It’s that she be allowed to live out the full span of her life, and knowing that she is loved.

She has been loved, and she will be loved. These are facts. I already love her, just from that second picture where she’s cuddled up under her blanket. I am SO looking forward to the little annoyances that come with IGs in the house. The little annoyances that it took me forever to appreciate in Jessie. And I’m looking forward to having a snuggle-bunny again.

I’m not usually one to wish the hours away, preferring instead to try my best to experience the moment I’m in, but boy, I wish it were tomorrow evening, already.

And all of this happening because someone knew someone through an online message board. Other than my friend doing the transport, none of us know any of us that are involved in this. This is truly the power of the Internet.

13. January 2007 · Comments Off on Reaching Gratitude · Categories: Memoir, Pajama Game

I once had a teacher that I hated. Sandra Mahan. No one looked forward to being in her class, and I don’t recall any kids having great things to say about her after having had her. She was notoriously “mean” and taught sixth grade. On the first day of school in sixth grade, I was full of dread. When she came in, she told us that 3 students would be moving to the other sixth grade class, and asked who wanted to go. Now the other sixth grade teacher was the former fifth grade teacher. I loved her. Granted she cut me no slack, and I didn’t push her since she went to school with my mom and got her hair done by my uncle. She wouldn’t hesitate to announce any of my shenanigans to my family. Still, I didn’t raise my hand to go back. I remembered how our fourth grade teacher had a “mean” reputation and she wasn’t that bad other than giving us lots of homework. Oh, no; Mrs. Mahan’s reputation was spot on.

Sixth grade was a miserable year. That woman stayed on me to the point I knew that she had singled me out as her problem child. Every morning I woke up dreading school, but kept thinking that sixth grade was only one year. Finally we reached the end of the year, and she announced that she would be returning to school over the summer to get her certification for high school math. She would become the junior high and basic math teacher starting in the fall. Oh, no. Two more years in her class. Seventh grade wasn’t too awful bad, but eighth grade was pure hell. Ninth grade was a new beginning. No more of her classes. It was nice, and then we moved and I transferred to a new school.

There were a couple of teachers at my new school with similar reputations, but the one taught a class I wasn’t going to be taking. The other, however, was waiting for senior year. Her class was my last class of the day as a senior. Mary Oates taught world history, and I wasn’t much of a history fan so I expected another year of hell. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure she was tough, and you didn’t play in her class, but she made history fun to learn. She taught us how to take notes properly, though I still suck at it. She became my favorite teacher even though most people could not stand her.

Despite the fact that I took all advanced courses in high school, and even a couple of Advance Placement courses, I was totally unprepared for college. I never dreamed I could be so happy with C’s. It took me 6 years, but I finally graduated with slightly better than a C GPA. Then I joined the Air Force since the job market around the area was such that I was looking forward to toiling away in a factory for who knew how long. The factory was fine for summer jobs, but I needed something more, and had to go away to get it.

I have often looked back over my short (8 year) Air Force career and said that basic training was my best assignment. I know how sad that sounds because I did not enjoy basic training in the least. Anyway, thanks to my age and height, I was assigned as an element leader. So not only did I get yelled at when I screwed up, I got yelled at when the girls in my element did anything. Granted, I had the best element anyone could hope to get, so I didn’t often get yelled at over them. However, ever time a TI was in my face chewing me out, I kept thinking, “I made it through three years of Sandra Mahan. This is nothing.” As I was studying in Tech School, and getting damn good scores because of it, something started to dawn on me. Mrs. Mahan was not riding my ass because she was mean; she was riding my ass because she knew I could do so much more than I was doing. She expected me to live up to my potential. *Gasp!*

I went back and started looking at what I learned from her. She taught us mind tricks to help us remember concepts. For instance, I never “got” the greater than “>” and less than “<” symbols. That gave me problems all through elementary school. I knew which number was larger, but I couldn’t keep the symbols straight. She gave me the key: the point points at the smaller number. In eighth grade, our school got some computers. Not many mind you. But the high school got three Commodore 64 computers, and each of the math teachers had one in their classroom. When Mrs. Mahan was telling us about it and what it could do, she decided to have someone come up and actually sit at the keyboard while she continued the explanation. She picked me, and I instantly bonded with that computer. I have often wondered why she picked me, but as I sat there while she instructed, I knew I wanted to work with computers when I grew up. So, if you were to ask me today who was my favorite teacher, I would still say Ms. Oates. However, I believe my best teacher was Sandra Mahan. I still find it ironic after all these years that as much as I hated her back then, who would have ever dreamed I would not only get over that misguided hate, but would hold her responsible for finally getting through my thick head what it takes to succeed. She tried and tried to get me to push myself when all I wanted to do was have fun. Now that I see what she was trying to do with me, I wish I had realized it earlier, and I am grateful to her for her efforts. It took a lot longer than it should have, but she did finally succeed with me.

12. January 2007 · Comments Off on Five Thousand Miles for a Camel · Categories: Critters, General, History, Old West, Pajama Game

In the annals of the US Army, are recorded many strange and eccentric schemes and scathingly brilliant notions, but none of them quite equals the notion of a Camel Corps for sheer daft logic. It was the sort of idea which a clever “think outside the box” young officer would come up with, contemplating the millions of square miles of desolation occasionally interrupted by lonely outposts of settlements, stage stations and fortified trading posts which the United States had acquired following on the Mexican War in the mid 1840s. The country was dry, harsh, desolate… logically, what better animal to use than one which had already been used for thousands of years in just such conditions elsewhere?

The notion of using camels in the American southwest may have occurred to others, but it was one 2nd Lt. George Crossman who first raised a perfectly serious proposal for their use. One senses initially that the notion had people falling about laughing at the off-beat nuttiness of it all, and then slapping themselves on the forehead with a strange gleam in their eyes and saying, “By George, it’s a crazy idea… but it just might work!”

Crossman and other military men kicked the idea around for a couple of years; it had the backing of a senator from Mississippi, who sat on the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, and was in the position to advocate in favor of an experimental use of camels by the US Army. The senator also thought “outside the box” although it would not be clear for another ten years how far outside the box he would eventually go. But Jefferson Davis was not in a position to make a study of camels, US Army for the use of (experimental) happen until he became Secretary of War in 1852. Within three years, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the purpose, and a designated ship set sail for the Mediterranean, carrying one Major Henry Wayne who had been personally charged by Secretary of War Davis with procuring camels. After a couple of false starts, a selection of 33 likely camels were purchased in Egypt. Wayne had also hired five camel drovers to care for them on the return voyage and to educate the Army personnel on the care and feeding of said camels.

The camels arrived at the port of Indianola on the Texas Gulf Coast with one more than they started with, since one of them was a pregnant female; a rather promising beginning to a project so close to Secretary Davis’ heart. The herd was removed to Camp Verde, sixty miles west of San Antonio by easy stages from Indianola, where they were eventually joined by a second shipment later that year. At a stopover in Victoria, the camels were clipped and a local woman spun yarn from the clippings and knitted a pair of socks for the President of the US out of them. Once at Camp Verde they mostly transported supplies and amused and impressed skeptics by carrying four times what a single mule bear, without visible effort. (But a lot of grumbling.) They were also used for an expedition to the Big Bend. Late in 1857, Edward F. Beale, explorer and adventurer, friend of Kit Carson and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California and Nevada took a contingent of camels on a long scout to explore the southwest along the 35th parallel, all through the vast deserts between New Mexico and California. Beale took twenty-five camels and two of the drovers, who were nicknamed Greek George, and Hi Jolly. The camels performed heroically all the way to California with Beale, and were used for a time to transport supplies from Fort. Tejon.

Alas for the demise of what looked like a brilliant solution; although it might have come to something eventually, but for the Civil War. Just about everyone who was a strong advocate for the use of camels suddenly had much greater problems to worry about than overcoming the resistance of Army muleteers and diverse other potential users. For the camels as draft animals were not readily biddable; they were even less cooperative than mules, which is saying a lot. They spat, nastily and accurately, stank to high heaven, and scared the living daylights out of horses and mules unaccustomed themselves to their presence, and generally did not endear themselves to most of the men who had to work with them. The California herd, those of them which had not been allowed to wander away, was sold mostly to small enterprises and circuses . Those camels, or their descendents who escaped into the desert southwest were spotted for decades afterwards, well into the early 20th century. Beale even took a few of them to his own ranch; a sort of camel refuge as it were. The Texas herd was also sold off or left to wander the range near Camp Verde; although according to this source, one of them found its way into the possession of an Army officer who used it to carry the baggage of his entire company all during the war. The drover, Hi Jolly eventually took a small herd of camels sold as surplus after the Civil War to the Arizona territory and used them to hall water for a time, before turning them loose. And so passed the end of an experiment, and the last of the US Army Camel Corps.

There is one small footnote to this; the story of the Red Ghost, which terrorized south-eastern Arizona Territory, for about ten years after 1883; a huge reddish camel… with the dead body of a man tied to its’ back. No one ever who he was, or how he came to be secured to the back of a camel, with knots that he could not have tied himself.

07. January 2007 · Comments Off on Thought-crime · Categories: Ain't That America?, Cry Wolf, General, Good God, Pajama Game, Politics

I was never, even in my convinced feminist phase, much of a fan of hate crime legislation. Tacking on extra special super-duper penalties for a particular motivation in committing a crime against a person or property seemed… well, superfluous. Defacing someone’s property, lynching someone, harassing phone calls; most of the stuff of which hate crimes are made is already illegal anyway, with pretty hefty penalties already attached upon conviction.

But on the other hand, I could understand how the persons and communities against whom such crimes were routinely directed were pretty generally directed could feel particularly threatened, and could honestly feel that such legislation could provide a modicum of protection. Many of the crimes typically reported as being “hate crimes” were pretty vile, as well as being very widely reported. I could understand those fears; as a feminist woman, and member of one of those classes against hate crimes could theoretically be committed. Personally, though, the existence of misogynist comedians and the whole so-called patriarchal establishment dedicated to keeping women down so lavishly documented in MS Magazine just didn’t cause me a moment of worry. I just figured that being a bigot of whatever persuasion was punishment in itself. Ignorance and bad manners wasn’t something that could, or ought to be legislated against.

I could also understand and sympathize with legislators who passed hate-crime legislation. They run for office, and it must be extraordinarily difficult to look into the eyes of constituents who are frightened and beleaguered and tell them “no”. At the very least, our solons need to be seen as doing “something”. The same for community organizations, and local media outlets; the case against hate crime legislation was made, if it was made at all, almost apologetically. No one wanted much to be seen as being in favor of bigots and racists, misogyny and homophobia, which is pretty much where you must be if you were against such a worthy cause.
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05. January 2007 · Comments Off on Ghost Town on the Gulf · Categories: General, History, Old West, Pajama Game

Once there was a town on the Texas Gulf Coast, which during its hey-day— which lasted barely a half-century from start to finish—rivaled Galveston, a hundred and fifty miles east. It started as a stretch of beach along Matagorda Bay, called Indian Point, some miles to the north, selected for no other reason than it was not Galveston by a German nobleman with plans to settle a large colony of German immigrants. Prince Karl Solms-Braunfels was a leading light of what was called the Mainzer Adelsverein; a company of well-meaning nobles whose ambitions exceeded their business sense at least three to one. They had secured— or thought they had secured — a large tract of land between the Llano and Colorado rivers approximately a hundred miles west of Austin, but the truth of it was, all they had secured was the right to induce people to come and settle on it. So many settlers farming so many acres, and the backers of the Adelsverein would profit through being entitled to so many acres for themselves.

That this tract of land was unfit for traditional farming, and moreover was the stomping grounds of the Comanche and Apache tribes… peoples not generally noted in the 19th century for devotion to multi-cultural tolerance and desire to live in peace with their neighbors… these things seem to have struck Prince Karl as a mere bagatelle, an afterthought, a petty little detail that other people would take care of. The Adelsverein would earn a tidy profit by inducing people to settle on such lands as they held a license for… so no fair for other entrepreneurs to poach their immigrants, as they passed through the fleshpots of Galveston. With a fair bit of the old Teutonic spirit of organization, Prince Karl decided that the Adelsverein settlers, who had signed contracts, and sailed on Adelsverein chartered-ships would not be contaminated by crass mercantile interests or distractions; best to come straight off the trans-Atlantic transport, through a port of his own choosing, comfortably close to the most direct route north, and the way-station he had himself established to feed settlers into the Adelsverein land grant… and so it was, that his choice fell on Indian Point, soon to be christened “Karlshaven”.

Three years later, it was called Indianola, the major deep-water port and entry-point for thousands of European immigrants to Texas, as well as a couple of shipments of camels (that is another story entirely). Indianola was also the major port for supplying… among other concerns, the US Army in the West. A great road, called the Cart Road ran towards San Antonio, and south of the contentious border, to Chihuahua, Mexico supplying the interior mercantile needs of two nations . By the mid 1850s, the town relocated to a location slightly lower in elevation, but one which would let it take advantage of deeper water… and a navigation route which would favor major maritime traffic. The Morgan Lines established regular service to Indianola, which boasted two long wharves, with the Morgan ticket-office at the very end of one of them. It was called the “Queen City of the West”, shipping— among other things— rice to Europe, and in the cattle glut after the Civil War, experimented with shipping refrigerated beef and canned oysters. For a few decades, Indianola gave Galveston and New Orleans a run for the money. It changed hands a couple times during the Civil War, when life turned out to be a lot more interesting than most inhabitants of Texas had bargained for. Upon the end of that unpleasantness, Indianola looked fair to taking a rightful place in the list of great ports of the world.

But in September of 1875… September being a fateful month in those parts… a great hurricane slammed Indianola, and it’s low-laying situation left it vulnerable to storm surge. Still, there were enough left, and it was a fine deep-water port and a good strategic location; not something to be casually abandoned; so the city stalwarts rebuilt in the spirit of optimism. Eleven years later, Indianola was slammed again. To add to the horror of it all, an upset oil lamp set fire to the structure it was in. At the height of the hurricane several of the survivors taking shelter in that building were burned to death, and several nearby structures also burned. The rebuilt town was obliterated; the remnants of those long docks built for the Morgan Lines are still lying at the bottom of the bay. The city fathers sadly accepted the inevitable. There is still a bit of Indianola left; a few builtings, but mostly monuments and relics, bottles and doll heads, doorknobs and Minie balls, sad tattered reminders of what was once the Queen City of the West. Galveston inherited that place, with queenly grace; but only for a couple of decades, until that city itself took the full force of a hurricane in 1900.

31. December 2006 · Comments Off on The Year of Living Dangerously · Categories: General, Media Matters Not, Pajama Game, War

If the personal stuff is anything to go by, then 2006 was the year of living dangerously. It’s the year when both my daughter and I cheerfully said “the hell” to what we had been doing for a while, and resolved to pursue what we really wanted. Blondie plunged into college (funded by the GI Bill, and a small VA disability payment), and I exited full-time employment in the pink-collar ghetto with a cheerful face and almost indecent haste. No, really, I think I was given a healthy shove just as I was nerving myself up to jump. Life is too short to spend it looking at the clock and wishing for the work day to end so you can get to the stuff you really want to be doing.

But I look ahead to 2007 with a vague yet unshakeable feeling of dread. I have the feeling that things are happening faster and faster; and that they are well beyond anyone’s ability to control. There have been… is the word “portents” too heavy? Baleful, maybe; like one of those Technicolor Texas sunrises; all purple clouds edged with gold and the sun rising blood-red in smear of pink sky. One thinks of that kind of sunrise as a herald, a red sky as a warning of storms.

The execution of Saddam Hussein is just the most recent of these events; did it not seem to happen very suddenly? The various trials looked to be one of those continuing circuses that would drag on for decades. Saddam would grow fat and old, and his lawyers would quibble, delay and appeal for stays, and he would eventually die of something prosaic like a heart attack, long after anyone ceased to care, except for the last few toothless protest ‘tards waving signs in front of the last few McDonalds’ in Europe. Instead… short walk and a swift drop, thank you very much.

Iran with nukes, and a charismatic leader with apocalyptic visions… and a hard-on for Jew-killing. Not a reassuring combination, all things considered. Consider also that this doesn’t seem to bother the usual UN and Euro protest ‘tards who have a conniption every time an American administration sneezes. The possibility of a mushroom cloud blossoming over Tel Aviv, or Marsailles, or Rome doesn’t seem to keep much more than a handful of us awake at night… Eh, it won’t be a US nuke, so what? They’re the only ones that really matter, apparently.

Even more dispiriting than the possibility of Iran using nuclear materiel for un-peaceful purposes, (which admittedly is only a possibility) is the challenge which has already been conceded, yielded up and surrendered by our mainstream press and so-called intellectual elites. Contemplate how easily and how consistently the flow of AP and Reuters news releases, video and still photography from Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority were slanted by partisan interests. Now there is a dagger in the heart of any pretense at impartiality. Rathergate and See-BS 60 Minutes might have been a one-off, and I’ve been able to avoid watching TV news magazines for years, but AP and Reuters releases are at the heart of local newspapers everywhere, especially those who can’t afford to send a reporter much beyond city limits.

The affair of the Danish Mohammad Cartoons depresses me even more, every time I think on it. For me it is a toss-up which of these qualities is more essential, more central to western society: intellectual openness to discussion and freewheeling criticism of any particular orthodoxy, the separation of civil and religious authority, and the presence of a robust and independent press. The cravenness of most of our legacy media in not publishing or broadcasting the Dread Cartoons o’ Doom still takes my breath away.

They have preened themselves for years on how brave they are, courageous in smiting the dread McCarthy Beast, ending the Horrid Vietnam Quagmire and bringing down the Loathsome Nixon… but a dozen relatively tame cartoons. Oh, dear… we must be sensitive to the delicate religious sensibilities of Moslems. Never mind about all that bold and fearless smiting with the pen, and upholding the right of the people to know, we mustn’t hurt the feelings of people who might blow up the Press Club*. The alacrity with which basic principals were given up by the legacy press in the face of quite real threats does not inspire me with confidence that other institutions will be any more stalwart.

Interesting times, interesting times… as that Chinese curse has it. It would make a great book, though… assuming that we survive it all. A then-obscure poem quoted in a New Years Day broadcast, sixty-eight years ago has a an odd resonance for me this year:

“I said to a man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown,’ and he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

(M.L. Harkins, 1875-1957, quoted by King George VI, 1 January 1940)

(BTW, The new book is shaping up nicely, with practically operatic levels of drama, murder, vengeance, betrayal and stolen children. The proposal for the novel about the Stephens Party is going to be presented by a writer friend of mine to his publisher, so keep fingers crossed on that one!)

* Meaning the MSM, legacy media, lamestream media… which as a national institution seems to be imploding of its’ own weight

28. December 2006 · Comments Off on Un-Civil War · Categories: General, History, Military, Old West, Pajama Game, War

“…From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean…”

In hot pursuit of my next “book”, I continue to plough through a great stack of readings, all about the German migration into Texas in the mid-19th century. Yes there is a great story there, of which practically no one outside Texas has ever heard, and given any sort of encouragement I will bore you rigid with all sorts of trivia. Like, for instance, the aristocratic patrons of the Society for the Protection of German Emigrants to Texas fell, hook, line, sinker and obscene amounts of cash to two of the biggest land swindles ever known. Three words “Fisher-Miller Grant”. That little fiasco was right on par with the sale of Manhattan Island, by a tribe that didn’t even own it. Ah, but it came out all right in the end… if the aristocratic members of the Society had possessed business acumen on par with their ambitions… well, let’s just say if that had been so, the second language of the state of Texas would not be Spanish. And it might not have joined the Union at all, but continued as an independent entity or quasi-German colony, which would have pleased a whole constellation of German princes and nobles, but really have annoyed the Confederate States, and deprived a great many Southern generals in the “late unpleasantness” circa 1861-65 of a great portion of their fire-eating, romping-stomping cavalry.

Texas joined the secession, to the heartbreak of Sam Houston, and enthusiastically entered into the whole spirit of the Confederacy… to be expected, since the Anglo (read American) settlers were mostly from southern states, and of that Scots-Irish breed of whom it has been oft-acknowledged that they were “born fighting”; Indians, British, the French or each other, whichever were most convenient at the moment. To read of the enthusiasm with which Texans volunteered to fight for the Confederacy is to wonder if it was just that they were spoiling for a fight, and the issues which impelled the secession were a minor bagatelle.

But this was not true of the considerable district around the German-settled areas around Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, all through the rolling lime-stone hills between San Antonio and Austin. This was the high country, the less-good land of hard-working farmers and small cattle ranches, solidly opposed to chattel slavery and who had opposed secession from the very beginning. They may have settled in Texas relatively recently, but they were a cohesive block, had put down deep roots, knew their rights and were prepared as stubborn and stiff-necked Americans to insist on them. If the Hill Country had been geographically contiguous with the Union at any point, doing a “West Virginia” and seceeding from the Secession would have met with solid approval.

As it was, the Hill Country Germans pretty much stood apart from the fray until a year into the war, in the spring of 1862, when the tide began to subtly shift against the Confederacy, to those who had the strategic sense to see the long picture. New Orleans was taken by the Union, whose forces began a slow progression up the Mississippi, slicing the Confederacy into two portions. Those who had been opposed to the whole secession thing were confirmed in their judgment, and those who had wavered began to wobble in the direction of loosing confidence… while the die-hard Confederates began to see the skull-grimace of death and defeat grinning at them from the corners.

Texas was put under martial law, and the supreme military commander was a foppish and overbearing little martinet named Hebert, who did much to make himself detestable to even supporters of the Confederacy. But what ignited resistance in the Hill Country, and farther north, around present-day Dallas, was the institution of conscription. Texas had poured 25,000 volunteers into the Confederate Army during the first year of the war. But volunteers were not enough, and in the spring of 1862 legislation passed which authorized the drafting of every Anglo (white) male between the age of 18 and 34… shortly thereafter, it was changed to 17 through 50. Resistance was instant and furious among Unionists. A party of 65 Unionist men from the Hill Country attempted to flee across the Rio Grande; they were ridden down by Confederate troops along the Nueces River, and half were killed outright or executed out of hand. In following weeks, another fifty men in Gillespie County, around Fredericksburg, were executed… many of them by Confederate vigilante gangs. It was said bitterly for decades afterwards, that more were killed in the Hill Country by such gangs during the Civil War than were ever killed by Indians, during the war or after it. A footnote in the history books, if even noted to begin with.

The experience of the Civil War had, I think, the effect of drawing the Texas German colonies into themselves, and emphasizing their distinct character, rather than diffusing amongst their neighbors as similar German enclaves did in the northern states. For they were long in forgetting what had been done to them, by their neighbors, and fellow Texans.

More about the German settlers, here and here, from the archives.

24. December 2006 · Comments Off on Christmas Eve Surprise · Categories: Domestic, Eat, Drink and be Merry, General, Memoir, Pajama Game

Some few Christmases ago, when Blondie was still stationed at Camp Pendleton, and my personal economics allowed me to fly out to California to spend the holiday at Mom and Dads’ house, my daughter and youngest brother conceived a grand scheme to give them a large color TV for Christmas.

Blondie and Sander also wanted to surprise them, and a huge box under the Christmas tree, no matter how cunningly wrapped, just would not deliver the same element of surprise… no, my daughter and my little brother had worked out a cunning plan to remove the old television, which had been inherited from Granny Dodo’s estate, install the new one, and gift-wrap the remote in a little box which would be in Mom’s Christmas stocking. They could pull this off because the television normally resided on a shelf of its own in a wall of books and cupboards, with a pair of louvered shutters closed over the screen. It was one of Mom’s enduring standards about television; that it be out of sight when not actually being watched, if not out of the living room entirely.

Such was the plan, but for the maximum surprise to be achieved, several challenges had to be worked out: the installation would have to be done after we were all done watching television on Christmas Eve, and Mom and Dad would have to be out of the house. The old TV would need to be unhooked from the antenna and VCR, and the new one put into its place, and all the evidence removed. Blondie and Sander estimated they would need at least twenty minutes. The optimal time to perform this substitution would be while everyone was at midnight candle-light service, at a church in Escondido, about half an hours’ drive away. As soon as they were out of the way, Blondie and Sander would set it all up and follow the rest of us in his car; hopefully not missing too much of the service. After all, this was one of the two official times per year when Dad actually set foot in church.

On some pretext, Blondie and Sander would lag behind, while all the rest of us; Mom and Dad and I, Pippy and her husband and the children, and JP and I would head down the hill to church service in several cars. And Blondie had sworn me to secrecy; my part in the plot was to make sure that Mom and Dad left the house on time. The new television was outside in the back of Sanders’ car, having been hidden at a neighbors’ house… oh, yeah, everyone was in on this, except for Mom and Dad, and possibly the pastor and church council.

At about twenty to eleven, Mom began reminding us all to change into something suitable for the midnight service. Dad turned off the television and closed the shutter doors, an event we all noted with covert interest, before Blondie and I went to the guest room to change. Blondie was going to wear her dress uniform… this always went over well with Mom’s friends at church, who were heavily into competition on the grandchild front. And her excuse for lagging behind would be an inability to locate one of her dress pumps, which she had carefully hidden under the bed.

So, everyone was ready but Blondie, with one shoe in her hand and making a pretense of frazzlement as she looked for the other, Dad was looking at his watch, Pip and her husband had rounded up the children, and were herding them towards their vehicle out in the driveway. In accordance with the agreed-upon plan, I put on a bit of a frazzled look myself (really, I am a better actress than most people give me credit for) and announced that Blondie can’t find her shoe, and that we should leave now. Sander chimed in on cue: he would stay and help her look, and catch up with us in his car.
“Don’t you have another pair of shoes you can wear?” Mom asks.
“No, I only brought the one set of dress pumps,” Blondie answered. No one even suggested that she borrow a pair; for a start, she wears a size nine and a half.
“It must be in the guest room,” Dad said determinedly, “Five minutes, we’ll take everything apart and look for it.” He and Mom looked like they were about to drop everything and look for the damned shoe. It meant a lot to them to have Blondie show up in uniform.
“Give us another minute, we didn’t look under the bed.” Blondie and I retreated to the bedroom and close the door.
“You’re got to get them out of there!” Blondie hissed at me.
“Give me a minute… OK, got it.” Of course… how devious. Devious, but effective.” I put on my coat, and picked up my purse. Down the hall, Mom was fussing around with her own coat and scarf.
“Did Blondie find her shoe?” she asked, and I whispered, conspiratorially
“It’s not lost, it’s just an excuse for the two of them to stay behind and set up a surprise present for Dad. Forget about the shoe; just get Dad out of here.”
I found Dad pacing up and down in the solarium
“Did you find it?” he asked, and I lowered my voice again,
“It’s just a ruse, so Blondie and Sander can stay behind and bring in Mom’s surprise Christmas present… just get her out of here, so they can get to work.”
Dad looked amused; he has always liked this sort of intrigue and with a minimum of fuss, they both headed for the car, with me trailing after and congratulating myself on my efficiency and guile.

And so it went according to plan… all except for Sander and Blondie getting to church after service had started, not knowing that they had locked the door into the sanctuary because of the late hour, and having to pound on the doors until the ushers let them in. The next morning, Mom unwrapped her first gift, and looked at the new TV remote with great bewilderment. Under all our expectant eyes Sander opened the doors to the TV cabinet with a great flourish… and Mom and Dad were both very, very surprised.

Merry Christmas… May all your surprises be the nice ones!!

22. December 2006 · Comments Off on Holiday Travel Travails · Categories: General, Memoir, Pajama Game

When I was a child, our holiday travels were limited to the 80 mile drive to Grandma’s house. It wasn’t “over the river and through the woods,” though, just “out of the city and onto the not-quite-expressway and eventually onto the back-country roads through the Ohio coal-mining country.” Usually in the dark, usually with cranky kids in the back seat, and cranky parents in the front.

Our departure date and time hinged on various factors – what day Christmas fell on, what time we got out of school, what time Dad got home, etc. Mom had us working for the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, making hand-crafted gifts to give to all the relatives. She got her ideas from an old craft magazine, “Pack-o-Fun,” which was all about re-using stuff that would normally be tossed. And this was long before Earth Day was established.

I remember using gallon bleach jugs to make piggy banks for my cousins. Or felt to make a holder for a yardstick, so you could hang your yardstick on the wall and always know where to find it (side note: my cousins called it “Mr Yardstick” and he figured prominently in their punishments when they misbehaved). One year, we taped tomato-juice cans together, stuck an orange juice can inside one of them, and created “yule log planters” by covering the whole thing with plaster of paris and brown paint.

When it was time to head “down home,” we’d gather all the stuff into the trunk of the car, bundle ourselves into our good clothes and winter coats, and head out.

The only travails these travels held for me were the cramming of 4 kids into the back seat of a 1966 Chevy Impala 2-door coupe, and the fact that there was absolutely *nothing* to do at Grandma’s, especially if the weather kept us indoors.

More »

20. December 2006 · Comments Off on Bad, Bad Toys · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, Fun and Games, General, Pajama Game

Ran across this little account of the Very Worst Toys Ever, and began to chortle…. Not so much at the toys themselves, although JP, and Pippy and I were actually given at least one of the deadly worst and a couple of the others mentioned in the comments.

We, of course, emerged un-maimed, although Dad probably regrets to this day that he didn’t give either one of us the atomic energy lab. Probably couldn’t afford it, as he was only a poor graduate student on the GI bill, round and about then. We did have loving and generous grandparents, though; how we didn’t ever get BB rifles like all the other neighborhood kids is a mystery. Mom probably put her foot down about that, believing that yes, you could put out an eye with them. Well, so could you with a “wrist rocket”. We had a pair of them, a sort of bent-metal sling-shot with a bottom end that braced against your wrist so that you could sling a bit of gravel at practically ballistic speed. But they weren’t toys- we had them to chase the blue jays away from the house where they tormented the cats and dogs unmercifully. As far as I know, Dad was the only one of us who ever actually hit a blue-jay with a wrist-rocket impelled missile. Square in the butt, actually. It let out an enormous squawk and vacated the premises henceforth and forthwith and at a good speed.

We did have a variant of the creepy-crawler toy, with the heater that heated up a pair of metal moulds that (IIRC) made little GI Joe figures and their various little accoutrements. Just open the little bottles of black and brown and OD green rubber compound goop, pour into the molds, and bake until done. It did heat up quite hot, and the baking rubber smelt pretty vile. Still, no dangerous adventures to report, no animals ever ingested the little marble-super-balls… but the “clackers” rather lost their charm after some painful bruises. Picture a pair of billiard-sized balls, on either end of a length of cord, with a finger-hold in the middle. The object was to get them going, “clacking” them against each other while hanging from your hand, and then get them going so fast that they would rebound and “clack” against each other above your hand. Eh… it was the novelty toy in about 1966… for as long as it took for kids to figure out that the damned things hurt.

Other bad, bad toys? Definitely the water-rocket. I clearly remember watching Dad and JP launch them from the back yard of the White Cottage, which would put it squarely in the early 60ies, the Golden Age of Really, Really Dangerous Toys. It was bulbous blue plastic rocket; there may have been a pair of them. They flew on an interesting combination of (I think!) baking soda, vinegar, water from a garden hose screwed into the launcher mechanism, and some kind of pressure pump-thingus. It was a wet and messy business, preparing for flight, but they zoomed up to a thrilling height from the ground when released from the launcher with considerable force.

Who needed lawn darts to maim each other with, when you had rocket power? Although to be fair, I don’t think we had nearly as much thrilling fun with them, as we did when Dad was overseeing the launching. And Dad brought us enough in the way of dangerous toys; it was his notion to snake-proof us at an early age, by having us handle the not-so-dangerous sorts. And Dad was the one who gave us an enormous magnifying glass and showed us how to focus the suns’ rays with it, so that we could set stuff on fire. And he brought home dry ice from the lab; heaps of fun, throwing a great lump of it into the baby’s wading pool, and enjoying the bubbling, and the billows of white vapor. That was nearly as much good clean fun as the insulated flask of liquid hydrogen, and dipping leaves and rose petals into it for a moment… then dropping them on the tile kitchen counter where they would shatter like glass.

Grannie Jessie was notoriously blasé about toy hazards, but even Grannie Dodie, who wasn’t, still let us play with Dad’s classic old Erector set, which included enough small nuts and screws to provide a choking hazard to an entire elementary school… and the crown jewel, a small electric motor. Said motor was a good three or four decades old when we played with it, and even to my eyes looked a little… I don’t know… frayed? Insulation cracked… connections not quite up to par? We never managed to spindle, shock, or mutilate with it, so perhaps it wasn’t quite so child-unsafe as I remember it. Oh, yeah dangerous toys – bicycles without helmets, large horses, and go-carts on steep hillside trails, rope swings in tall trees.
Oddly enough, we survived. Even without the toy nuclear lab. Add your own accounts of Bad, Bad Toys. Especially if they were received as Christmas presents.

(Don’t drool, people… Dad’s old Erector set survived our childhood, still in the original case, but it was in their garage when the house burned to the ground, four years ago.)

15. December 2006 · Comments Off on Anatomy of a Rotten Day · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Pajama Game

And I mean a day that sucked so badly it pulled small objects nearby into itself, a day that started off setting a new record for suckage, a day that spread blight, disaster and discouragement in every possible direction, even to the gingerbread cookies that Blondie attempted this afternoon, following a recipe from the pages of “Joy of Cooking” which defiantly should have stayed there and never seen the light of day. It’s the Gingerbread Man recipe on p 712 of the 1970s edition, BTW. Can’t miss them… tastes like ginger and molasses playdough, and look most unfortunately like dog turds. And we know dog turds, these days, for we are the one set of responsible pet owners on our street who do, in fact, whip out the approved plastic bags… no matter what that rude woman on the corner with her herd of nasty-tempered rat-dogs called after us, yesterday.

Oh, yeah, ginger-flavored dog turd balls, that’s for sure what we’re going to give to our neighbors for Christmas. The ones that don’t speak to us will probably never not speak to us again, and the ones that we do speak to will be looking after us strangely and discretely spitting out the bite they were polite enough to take into a paper napkin.

Does anyone actually ever eat the Christmas cookies from neighbors, anyway? I think they just pass them on to someone else. Like fruitcakes.

My computer has been glitching, over the last couple of says, abruptly terminating the internet connection, and sending me repeated pop-ups for things that I am not interested in, and so yesterday I burned several hours of writing time running the usual sort of diagnostics, with the result that this morning, absolutely the third thing I tried to do on line froze it up entirely: there was the desktop, and my documents and everything…less my accustomed cookies and log-ins…and it remained frozen. So, first thing of the day, a day dedicated to writing and a chapter of the new book which I had been thinking about all night, and planning to pick up where I had left off yesterday…and I can’t. All my notes, and the very complicated excel spread-sheet I spent hours on this week, plotting out the various events and characters…all locked up, because of course I haven’t copied them over to disc because they are not finished yet.

My computer genius friend says he can’t get to it until tonight, but if we meet his daughter at a place in our neighborhood that she is going to show to a potential buyer, she’ll take the computer to his place, and he’ll work on it after work tonight. We spend some time, locating the place, and waiting for the daughter. She tells us that there has been a sudden rash of malicious worms and Trojans, in the last couple of days… his own website crashed and a lot of his clients are infested up the wazoo with them. He may just have to rescue my documents, wipe the hard drive and start all over.

I have always thought that the jerks who write and set loose malicious stuff like that should be stripped naked, smeared with honey and staked out over a fire-ant nest. Alive. The prospect of perhaps having to re-write what I have so far (not all of it, because a friend who is away for the holiday had the first chapter sent to him as an attachment and he may have it still, but I won’t know until he is back after the holidays!) or even interrupting me when I am in the throes of creating something really, really terrific…and putting a crimp into earning my living writing makes me really, really furious. Yeah, I’ll go for the fire ants nest, but I’d like do to this malicious little bastard (who is probably chortling to himself in a nasty cold-water walkup in Russia or the Philippines or wherever these shits congregate) what the Comanche used to do to their prisoners. (Wasn’t pleasant, BTW. Involved eye-gouging, amputation of marital tackle, hot coals, and stakes.)

I finally finished hemming a length of fabric for a scarf for Blondie, and adorning each corner with an elaborate tassel of beads, all very headachy work, done under bright light with very tiny glass beads. I’ve been putting off finishing it for days, finally did so today, and when she took it back to her room this afternoon, one of the tassels caught on the baby-gate we use to keep the dogs our of her end of the house… and ripped it all loose. Beads all over. When I finally finished it, it stayed finished for a whole… I dunno, fifteen minutes?!!!

I can’t pay a bill that I have been promising I’ll pay today because I haven’t been paid… and I worked three hours and a half, clipping certain real estate ads out of the newspaper, trying to clip them so they could be readable, even if the particular section was on two sides of the same sheet of newsprint. I have a headache from this, and my fingers are all over newsprint and dust. Again, I won’t be paid for this until next week sometime.

I am waiting for the book I have already finished to connect with the publishing world; which is moribund until after Christmas, or even New Years, even. I had the mad notion to do a proposal for the new book, and include it as a two-fer, and I also wanted to try and do my Christmas card letter today… but can’t because my computer is frelled, all because some malicious little twerp decided to stick it to the man.

And we can’t afford to go to my parents for Christmas, when everyone else will be there, and it’s a week before Christmas, and we are juggling time and commitments and money. Candidly, I kind of wish Christmas was over already.

Oh, yeah, and some kids were running around the neighborhood vandalizing cars. And I have to write this on Blondie’s laptop, which has a keyboard and the weird little tracing pad and two buttons instead of a mouse, and everything is in the wrong place…

Bah, humbug… Merry ******Christmas! The person who tries to tell me how it could all be so much worse is getting an internet nuclear wedgie, as soon as I can figure out how to administer it.

12. December 2006 · Comments Off on Remembering a life: Jan 4, 1930-Dec 12, 2003 · Categories: General, Memoir, Pajama Game

mom at 66

On 12/12/03, my Mom passed away. The following is what I read at her funeral. I try to re-read it every year, to remind myself of how special she was.

Other than marriage, the parent-child relationship is probably the most complex relationship we’ll ever experience. Who doesn’t remember either saying or hearing, at some point in their life, “I hate you! I wish you were dead!”

And then one day you wake up, and they *are* dead, and your entire life is changed forever.

Hopefully, the “I hate you’s” were replaced by “I love you’s” over the years. Mine were, and I’m eternally grateful for that.

I’m still trying to realize what all I lost last week. Before I can do that, I need to realize what I had.

Mom was so much more than just a label – “wife,” “mother,” “sister,” “friend.” She was a human being, full of the complexity that we all are made of. I’m not going to tell you that my mom was perfect – she wasn’t. But I’ll let you in on a secret — neither am I. 🙂 She accepted my lack of perfection, and I learned that it didn’t matter if she wasn’t June Cleaver – what mattered was that she was my mother: the only one I’ll ever have. And now all I have of her are memories.

The nice thing about memories is that we can choose what we want to remember. I’m choosing to remember the good things, and the happy times.

I remember hot breakfasts on cold winter mornings before we would walk to school. I remember walking home at lunchtime to eat a hot meal that she fixed for us. I remember family dinners with home-cooked food, all made from scratch.

I remember our yard not having any grass, because all the neighborhood kids played at our house. I remember hallowe’en parties, with our basement turned into a haunted house. I remember a fairly happy childhood, with a mom who was involved. She had 4 kids in school, and juggled the class visitation and room mother duties somehow.

My mother, who was always nervous around large bunches of kids, became a den mother for my brother, and a girl scout troop leader for me and my sisters. She helped start an after-school activities program at our church.

As a kid, one of my major complaints was that she knew where the “off” button was on the TV set, and she would use it. 🙂 Instead, we would play games, or do arts and crafts, or even – gasp – clean house. Back then, I complained. Today, I tell my friends about these times, and treasure the memories.

We’re in the middle of the Christmas season, right now, and for me, that will always bring memories of Mom baking. She’d start baking before thanksgiving, and continue on until… forever, it seemed like. We had a cookie tree — a small, table-top artificial tree, decorated with candy canes and Christmas cookies. No matter how often we ate all the cookies off the tree, there were always more to replace them. Pies lined the counter, at Thanksgiving and Christmas both. And Mom made her pie-dough from scratch.

She made her bread from scratch, too — twelve loaves at a time, every week. Four kids go through a lot of bread, after all.

And in the middle of all her Christmas baking, she would find time to bake me a birthday cake, every year. I don’t know how she did it all, honestly.

She cared about people, deeply and genuinely, and people responded to that caring. My brother brought home a friend in the early ’80s — Mom gave Tom a “certificate of adoption” for Christmas one year, and treated him as if he were another son. Tom’s still a part of our family, 20 years later.

She was a determined woman. She knew what she wanted, and she made it happen. Although she didn’t graduate from high school, all of her kids did, and all of us attended at least *some* college classes.

She was terrified of lakes and pools, but she made sure we all learned how to swim. She didn’t drive, but she made sure that we all got our drivers’ licenses.

It’s hard to grasp what we’ve lost with her passing. She was our historian, and our glue. She was our constant – she would always be there, she would always love us, she would always believe in us, and want us to be happy.

She was our “doer” — “mom will do that,” we’d say. Or “ask Mom – she’ll know.” And she usually did.

She was a unique woman – an original. Not perfect, but not too shabby either. And she had a fantastic sense of humor.

I called her for Thanksgiving – a day late, as usual. We talked about how I hadn’t mailed her card yet (or her anniversary card, from late Oct, or Dad’s birthday card from mid-November, or even her own birthday card from last January) — I BUY the cards, I just forget to sign and send them. 🙂

A week later, I got 2 cards from her in the mail. One was my Christmas card, and the other one had a note that said “so you wont’ be embarrassed about how late your cards are.” I opened it up, and it was a Valentine’s Day card, for last Feb. I laughed out loud, and was going to call her and let her know how much I had enjoyed it. But it was the last week of the semester, and I had three papers due. Besides, I could tell her when I called her in a couple days, on my birthday, I thought.

I thought wrong, unfortunately. She didn’t make it to my birthday. But she knows now, how tickled I was. And she knows, better than I could ever find words to express, how very much I love her, and how much of her lives on in me.

We share the same faith, so I know I’ll see her again, as well. Until then, I’ll make do with my memories, and I’ll make sure I’m hanging onto the good ones.

03. December 2006 · Comments Off on Goliad · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, History, Military, Old West, Pajama Game

The Texas Revolution in 1835 initially rather resembled the American Revolution, some sixty years before— a resemblance not lost on the American settlers in Texas. At the very beginning, both the Colonies and the Anglo-Texans were far-distant communities with a self-sufficient tradition, who had been accustomed to manage their own affairs with a bare minimum of interference from the central governing authority. Colonists and Anglo-Texans started off by standing on their rights as citizens, but a heavy-handed response by the central government provoked a response that spiraled into open revolt. “Since they’re trying to squash us like bugs for being rebellious, we might as give them a real rebellion and put up a fight,” summed up the attitude. The Mexican government, beset with factionalism and seeing revolt against it’s authority everywhere, sent an army to remind the Anglo-Texan settlers of who was really in charge. The rumor that among the baggage carried along in General Martin Cos’ train was 800 pairs of iron hobbles, with which to march selected Texas rebels back to Mexico did not win any friends, nor did the generals’ widely reported remarks that it was time to break up the foreign settlements in Texas. Cos’ army, which was supposed to re-establish and ensure Mexican authority was ignominiously beaten and sent packing.

Over the winter of 1835-36 a scratch Texan army of volunteers held two presidios guarding the southern approaches from another attack, while representatives of the various communities met to sort out what to do next. First, they formed a shaky provisional government, and appointed Sam Houston to command the Army. Then, in scattershot fashion, they appointed three more officers to high command; it would have been farcical, if the consequences hadn’t been so dire. With no clear command, with military companies and commanders pursuing their own various plans and strategies, the Texas settlers and companies of volunteers were not much fitted to face the terrible wrath of the Napoleon of the West and President of Mexico, strongman, caudillo and professional soldier, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. He did not wait for spring, or the grass to grow tall enough, or the deep mud to dry out: he intended to punish this rebellious province with the utmost severity. Under his personal command, his army reached the Rio Grande at Laredo in mid-February, and laid siege to a tumbledown former mission garrisoned by a scratch force of volunteers… San Antonio de Valero, called simply the Alamo. But this story is about the other presidio, and another garrison of Texans and volunteers; Bahia del Espiritu Santo, or Goliad.
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25. November 2006 · Comments Off on Wal-Marts and Macs · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, Pajama Game, sarcasm, That's Entertainment!

Having survived Thanksgiving (we only had eleven guests this year), the only specific plans I had for the long weekend were to go to the annual Wal-Mart Friday blitz and to get Windows installed on Red Haired Girl’s Mac Mini. The first went well; the second is, shall we say, a work in progress with the results (or status) to be reported in another post.

First let me say that I have a typical guy attitude about shopping – I hate it. I prefer gouging out my eyeballs with a dull spoon to walking up and down the aisles on the watch for some widget that would be just perfect for (fill in the name here), particularly during Christmas season when the legions are out with the same mission. However, about three years ago Real Wife talked me into going to Wal-Mart for the Black Friday sale. I was hooked. It isn’t really shopping because, per the terms of my agreed participation, we walk in with a list, reconnoiter, develop a plan, execute said plan (ruthlessly if need be), and leave. We then go to a local diner for steak (very rare) and eggs. This year, unfortunately, Wal-Mart and the local diner did not coordinate, with the result that the former started the sale an hour earlier, and the latter did not adjust their schedule accordingly. Hence, no bloody steak and eggs. Nonetheless, we were 100% effective in securing the sale items we wanted. My specific task was to snag a Symphonic 20” LCD TV ($248) for the kitchen, which is where I watch 98% of the time. I located the pallet with the TVs and secured my outpost at 04:30 hrs. Enemy forces began forming almost immediately, while I studied each new arrival to establish whether they would be a threat or not in order to adjust my tactics accordingly. I had a fresh buzz cut for the occasion (it helps to look like a potentially violent criminal). This year, a cowboy walked up and, in a pleasant conversational tone, told me that he wanted two of them. I laughed and said “Fine, but this one right here is mine”, all the while giving him that penetrating look that drill sergeants use to such great effect. He got the message. More »

24. November 2006 · Comments Off on The Use of History · Categories: General, History, Pajama Game, Rant, sarcasm

Reader Mark Rosenbaum commented on one of my historical pieces this week: “Why couldn’t they tell history this well when I was in school a half century ago?” . About that same time, I ran across this story— part of the run-up to the Thanksgiving holiday. Perhaps it might, in a small way, explain why people are not so enamored of history these days… at least, the sort of history taught in schools.

I can only assume that we are supposed to marvel at Mr. Morgan’s method of teaching, and his grim multi-culti sensitivity, in pounding it in relentlessly to a class of grade-schoolers that we actual or spiritual descendents of Pilgrims are “Bad, Bad People, Who Stole Everything From the Indians, and Celebrating Thanksgiving is Just As Bad as the Holocaust, Almost”. Myself, I think “Jeeze, what a dick-head!” Talk about sucking all the joy out of the room! Seriously, teachers like this was one of the reasons I gave a miss to teaching myself; and the reason for private school looking better and better when it came to Blondie. For one, the School Sisters of St. Francis did not conflate the Plymouth Colony in it’s shaky first years with three hundred years of savage conflict. Dumping on the poor Pilgrims for the Indian Wars seems to be a bit of a fallacy, as well as grandly oversimplifying history— Not to mention the fact that the Indians warred on each other with keen enjoyment and no little inventive brutality for centuries. At the very least, Mr. Morgan is a dickhead for ruining the innocent joy of children in what appears to have been a fond ritual. Having the kids dress up like Pilgrims and Indians and commemorating a peaceful feast together… dear, can’t have that, can we? It’s just too simple!

History for children ought to be simplified, but dumping a metaphorical turd in the punchbowl like that may not be the most effective way to begin teaching the nuances of it all.

Because you have to begin with teaching the history, then bring in the nuances and the highlights, as well as the lowlights, the grand stories, and events. We need our heroes, we have to know what people did, how they behaved, and why. It’s almost a primal urge… why do we still read the Iliad, of Beowulf and King Arthur, of Shakespeare’s’ kings and nobles, and Civil War generals. We need the stories of people, almost as much as we need oxygen, water, sustenance. We are driven to accounts of glorious deeds as much as of the ignoble, of disasters and adversity, wanting examples of how well, or how badly people behave in adversity, wanting to pattern our own selves against those who stood as pillars of integrity in bad times, and shining heroes in the good times. If we do not know how people in the past could survive, endure, and persevere… than how can we hope for ourselves? We would be alone, without a map, without an idea, and without hope. It would be a sort of intellectual sensory-deprivation tank, to be cut off from the past. Mr. Morgan’s chief offense, I fear, is that with the best intentions in the world, he is subtly discouraging kids from looking at history. Besides the permanently apologetic and masochistic, who truly wants to be ashamed of their ancestors, and where they came from? Yes, Mr. Morgan, about the paving material used on the approach to the underworld?

There is a theory that all this rubbishing of our heroes and heroines, and the events in our national saga being constantly painted as sordid, vile, an epic of treachery and double-dealing from the very beginning has a deliberate propose; an elaborate Marxist-Gramscian plot to render us spiritless, compliant to the leadership of some vaguely socialist cabal. It might very well be so; but tools like Mr. Morgan and his ilk may have overplayed their hand, because in spite of their tireless labors in the classroom and the upper reaches of academia and intelligentsia, people are still drawn to history on their own: to their own family memoirs, to amateur history circles, and to re-enactors’ groups of everything from mountain-man rendezvous and black-power shooting, to Civil War and Revolutionary battles, to reconstructing lifestyles and vintage clothing, and a hundred other ways of reaching out and touching the past. We cannot help ourselves, it’s an imperative; we must understand the present, and perhaps find a path through the future… in spite of educational apparatchiks like Mr. Morgan and his grim little exercise in political correctitude.

Wouldn’t it have been much more nuanced, do you think, to emphasize that on that long ago Thanksgiving, two very different peoples, whose descendents would be at each others throats for three hundred years, were yet able to join together for a great feast, to be courteous and friendly with each other, for at least a little while? Next month, I suppose Mr. Morgan will follow up by telling the kiddies that Santa Claus is an invention of the mercantile-industrial establishment.

23. November 2006 · Comments Off on Scenic Wonders of the Trail · Categories: General, History, Old West, Pajama Game

(Another of the series about the Old West)

In some not inconsiderable ways, heading west along the Platte River trails might have been seen as a kind of working holiday for emigrants. While there was a lot of brute physical work involved in moving the wagons or the mule-train the requisite twelve or fifteen miles farther west each day, the charm of camping under canvas every night, and preparing meals over an open campfire twice or three times daily must have worn very thin… it may have been not much more onerous then the daily round of chores attendant on an 19th century farmstead. Add in camaraderie among the party, the fairly easy going on the first third of the trail to California or Oregon, opportunities to hunt and explore new horizons, horizons that were unimaginably wider than what they had been used to, back in Ohio or Missouri, sights that were strange and rare to ordinary farm folk.

The Platte River Valley itself was one of those striking vistas; often called the “Coast of Nebraska; it so resembled a flat, shimmering ocean, edged with sand dunes. It appeared to be somewhat below the level of the prairies they would have been crossing, since departing from Independence, St. Joe or Council Bluffs. To some emigrants it appeared like a vast, golden inland sea, stretching to the farthest horizon. But it was the highway towards the mountains beyond Fort Laramie, a month or so of fairly easy traveling… even if the river water was murky with silt, the mosquitoes a veritable plague and wood for campfires very rare.

The Coast of Nebraska offered another awe-inspiring vista; that of vast herds of buffalo. The Platte Valley was their grazing ground and watering hole. Emigrants were astounded equally by the size of the individual buffalo— which could weigh up to 2,000 pounds— and the sheer numbers. Witnesses to stampedes of buffalo herds at various times and places along the Platte noted how the very ground shook, and the sound of it was like a heavy railroad train passing close by. This was heady stuff, to someone who had spent most of their life before this, farming in Ohio, or in Missouri. But more was yet to come.
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20. November 2006 · Comments Off on Run Like The Wind · Categories: Critters, Domestic, General, Pajama Game

In the last couple of weeks, I have begun taking both dogs with me for the morning run. This must present a most amusing spectacle; I am certain that people all over the neighborhood are laughing at the spectacle of me, with a fistful of leash in either hand, being dragged at a fast clip by the wildly unmatched pair of Lesser Weevil and Spike. Lesser Weevil is a great rawboned boxer-pit bull mix with a soupcon of retarded thrown in for good measure. Otherwise fairly intelligent and sensitive to a fault, she just occasionally does the most jaw-droppingly bone-headed things such as walking straight into walls, telephone poles, or the deep end of swimming pools. Upon bouncing back, or climbing out, she displays a look of complete surprise and bafflement. She still pulls like a tractor, which gets me an upper-body workout, in addition to the run, and varies her own personal program of exercise by launching herself clear off the ground, leaping and whirling in the air when she is excited. She spends the first three or four blocks being excited, bouncing along with all four feet clear off the ground, leading to speculation that she might be part jack-rabbit as well.

I was told that Spike, as a shih-tzu, and a toy shih-tzu at that, would not cope with the great outdoors very well; she definitely could not handle summer heat, but then neither did Weevil. When I first began taking Spike out for walks on the weekends, I usually had to carry her for at least half the distance. Once the cool fronts moved in, Spike was revived and invigorated; she bounds along tirelessly with her nose up, tail curled proudly over her back, ears flapping madly and her fur blown back in the wind of her passage. (Spikie! Run Spikie, run like the wind!!) She must gallop at top speed to keep up with Weevil, but she never seems to tire now, and both of them are straining ahead, pulling their leashes straight out in front of me… especially when they see someone or something that interests them. Today it was a squirrel, which we surprised as we ran past a pile of yard clippings put out for the trash. The squirrel flashed out in front of us, not ten feet away, and both the dogs lunged after it with the greatest enthusiasm imaginable. I had a good grip on the leashes, though; and the squirrel leaped up onto a fence and then discovered there was another large dog in the backyard on the other side, and had to do that “walking on the edge” thing while all the dogs went nuts in chorus.

They are madly enthusiastic about people; any people, large or small. They are about the two most social dogs I have ever had anything to do with; to them, everyone they meet when we are out and about are their dearest friends in all the world… which wouldn’t bode well for being watchdogs, except that Spike has the expected small-dog propensity for barking at any little noise. And Lesser Weevil at least looks intimidating, so I do have some faint hope that she could bring herself to throw herself on an intruder… even if it would be only to slobber affectionately.

The three older cats: Morgie, Henry and Arthur are still very stand-offish, although it is not for lack of trying from Spike. She and Percival are very affectionate and playful with each other, probably because Percival is the only beast in the house smaller than Spike herself. She is a year old, now, and seems to have hit her full growth at about ten pounds, every bit of it muscled and full of energy. She chases Percival under the chairs, pins him down and nips as his ears, and he bats at her with all four paws, and when he feels like it, takes over her dog-bed. None of the cats want anything to do with Weevil, though; she is just too big. She was entirely flummoxed one morning, when I was talking to a neighbor, and the neighbor’s cat sauntered up fearlessly. I had a both hands on the leash, and a length of it wrapped around my knuckles, but all the cat did was sniff at her, and touch muzzle to hers… much to Weevil’s bafflement. What? Aren’t you going to run, so I can chase you? Whassup with that???!

“She was raised with dogs” Explained the neighbor, but Weevil still looked puzzled. I don’t think any of my current cats will adjust and look on poor Weevil as a good buddy and playmate. Détente is probably the best that can be hoped for, until Weevil gets over the urge to chase fast-moving objects. Which she probably won’t, unless she figures out that Blondie deliberately polishes the floor to a high sheen, just for the fun of watching Weevil and Spike skid and slide on it, while chasing a ball or yarn-bone. We did dress them for Halloween, just to be sadistic: I’ll post a picture as soon as we have that capability again!

17. November 2006 · Comments Off on Zen and the Hopeful Writer · Categories: Domestic, General, History, Old West, Pajama Game

Still waiting to hear from an agent/publisher/deus-ex-machina/whatever, regarding the book. Another couple of weeks of this, and my fingernails will be chewed off, all the way up to my elbows. All my friends counsel patience, all but one, who recommends zen detachment… and starting on another book. I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, thinking on this. What on earth could I write about? What is out there that would grab me, and an audience half as thoroughly as the greatest emigrant trail epic that no one has ever heard anything about?  It made a nice change from worrying about paying the necessary bills on a combination of a pension, two part-time jobs and some blogging-for-dollars.  I loved the experience of writing that story; it took two months and a bit, going full-tilt every day that I could spend at the computer. I had set myself a target of 3,000 words, or half of a chapter a day. I already had a chapter outline, a handful of characters, the plot. all worked out; just put in the little bits, the conversation and incident, and colorful bits of description. Piece of cake.  I’ve read how hard it is to work at home, how easily distractable it can be, that everything gets in the way, and …. Oh, Blondie just asked me to mend a hole in one of her tee-shirts… where was I? Yes, things conspire to keep you fiddling around with other things, rather than buckling down to work.

Anyway, I finished it, put it around for some friends to read, did some re-writes as I found more and better background information,  took stock of various questions and critiques, rewrote it again, filled out some of the incidents, characters and relationships… and at the every end of it, I fiddled around for days on the last little rewrite. Because after that last page, that last paragraph, it would be finished. I would be done with John and Elizabeth, with Captain Stephens and his faithful Dog, the fearless little Eddie, his mother Isabella  and his baby sister… all of them. Their adventure would be over, and so would mine. I had wanted to write about them so badly that I took being laid off with the greatest good will. I’ve been reluctant to even consider full-time employment again, because… to be honest, I don’t want to think about myself as anything but a writer. I don’t really want to be doing anything but writing. I’ve spent all of my adult life spent  working in  broadcasting, and the military, or in various pink-collar administrative and office jobs because it paid, and I was mostly good at it, if not particularly interested. I kept the scribbling on the side as a private amusement, but this year it just came to a head. I want to do what it pleases me to do, and that is just that.  My mid-life crisis, as it were. My friend the zen-master sternly advises against thinking of money or acclaim… just write. You are, therefore you write… but having finished one enormously compelling story… what to do, what to do? Writing “Truckee’s Trail”  was in a weird way, rather addictive, sort of what heroin must be like. (Blondie, doing a Bette-Davis sized eye-roll: “Mom, you’ve never done heroin!).

The new book… nineteenth century America still draws me. A historical novel, then; I seem to have a knack for it, anyway. Where we Americans came from, an experience which shaped and I am convinced goes on shaping us; the frontier, of course. But something off-beat, something mostly unknown to a wider audience… something unexpected. It all came together unexpectedly as I was emailing the “zen-master”, lamenting the fact that I didn’t know anything of where I stand as far as the agent is concerned; the perfect next writing project. The Texas frontier this time and the German settlers who came and founded Fredericksburg and New Braunfels. It has everything: very cultured, forward-thinking Europeans, unhappy with the political situation after 1848… one of their leaders was a nobleman, for pete’s sake! They came all at once, and founded their little town on the edge of howling wilderness, and hashed out a treaty with the Indians, and planted gardens, and got along uneasily with the other Texans, and then…and then… and then….

That’s where the fun comes in.  I don’t know quite how I will shape the story, or who I will focus  on, but I just know there is something in it, and I’ll know it when I see it, once I’ve begun the reading. Think of the shock, the culture clash; coming from Europe, with all it’s tiny old buildings, castles and culture… and standing under the big sky, and looking around at empty hills and oak trees, and seeing… well, nothing built by man. I’m halfway convinced a fair number of European émigrés in the 19th century must have felt like hiding under a heavy piece of furniture and never coming out, except that there was nothing to go back for. What preconceptions they mist have packed with their baggage, what hopes they had, in a new land? How difficult was their adjustment to new and brutal realities on the frontier? It may even be politically current, if Mark Steyn and others are correct about a political melt-down in Europe in the near future. And it’s not much known: I was barely aware of the various German colonies in Texas until I came to live here, and I was a history junkie from the first time I began reading all Mom’s back issues of American Heritage. (Back when they were published in hard covers, and without any advertising.)Best if all, most of it is conveniently located close-by; doing descriptions will be a snap! And so will getting in touch with local enthusiasts. I have written about the German settlers before, even.  (sigh… can’t get link to work. It was  post last year called “Germantown”)

I can hardly wait to get started….  



08. November 2006 · Comments Off on Bidwell-Bartleson, 1841 Part 2 · Categories: General, History, Old West, Pajama Game

(part two: part one here)

The men of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, who had— against all advice and counsel— decided to continue on for California had much in common. They were all young, most under the age of thirty. None of them had been into the Far West until this journey, although one of them was a relative by marriage to the Sublette fur-trading family. The Kelsey brothers, Andrew and Benjamin were rough Kentucky backwoodsmen. Two of them had been schoolteachers, but all had grown up on farms, were accustomed to firearms and hunting…and hard work, of which the unknown trail would offer plenty. No less than four of them kept diaries, three of which are still in existence. The diarists themselves narrated a zesty and optimistic tale of their adventures, taking some of the edge off of the desperation that must have been felt as they blundered farther and farther into the trackless wilderness. They set off with nine wagons in the middle of August, following the Bear River towards the Great Salt Lake. They had seen a map which showed two rivers flowing west from this lake, but it seemed that was a mere fantasy on the part of the map-maker. After a week or so, they camped north of the Lake and sent two men to Fort Hall seeking additional supplies and guidance. In both they were disappointed; there were no supplies to be spared from the fort stores, and there was no guide to be hired. The only advice they could get from Fort Hall was not to go too far north, into a bandlands of steep canyons, or too far south into the sandy desert. But away to the west there was a river flowing towards the south-west. That was called then Mary’s or Ogden’s River (now the Humboldt). If they could find and follow it, it would guide them on long way.

On such sketchy advice, they continued westwards; a dry stretch around the north of the lake, until despairing, they turned north and camped at the foot of a mountain range. There was grass and water there, as they would come to know if they had not worked that out already. They traded gunpowder and bullets for some berries from friendly Indians camped nearby. At this point, they may have realized it would be better to send out scouts ahead, and party captain Bartleson and another man named Hopper rode out on a scout to look for Mary’s River. They did not return for some days, during which the party abandoned one wagon and moved gradually westward. They were probably following the tracks left by the two scouts, who did not return until eleven days were passed and they had been despaired of. Owners of two wagons hired Indian guides and went south on their own, covering two days journey, until Bartleson and Hopper returned to the reminder with word they had found a small stream that seemed to lead into the Mary’s River.

They all headed southwards across the desert, southwards again after camping at a place called Rabbit Creek. By mischance, they had missed the headwaters of a creek that emptied into the river they were searching for, and in another couple of days, the team animals began to fail. The Kelsey brothers abandoned their wagons, packing their remaining supplies onto the backs of their mules and saddle horses, and the party continued with increasing desperation, south and west, and to the north-west again, until it became clear that the wagons were a useless, dragging burden. In the middle of September the wagons were abandoned, about where present-day US Highway 40 crosses the Pequop Summit. They made packs for the mules… they tried to make packs for the oxen, who promptly bucked them off again. They set off again, giving much of what they couldn’t take to friendly Indians, and operating mostly by chance at this point, found and followed the Humboldt River. They supplied themselves by hunting and gradually and one by one, killing their draft oxen. Nancy Kelsey, the indomitable wife of Benjamin was reduced to carrying her year-old daughter, herself barefoot… and yet, as one of their comrades recollected later, “she bore the fatigues of the journey with so much heroism, patience and kindness…” She had embarked on the journey, declaring that she would rather endure hardships with her husband, than anxieties over his absence.

Gradually, as historian George Stewart put it, “their journey became one of those starvation marches so common in the history of the West”. They soldiered on through the desert, eventually finding their way over the Sierra at the Sonora Pass, only to be caught in the wilderness canyons at the headwaters of the Stanislaus River. They did not eat well until they reached the lower stretches, the gentle San Joaquin valley where the men— still well supplied with powder and shot— bagged enough deer for a feast. They arrived at a ranch nearby early in November of 1841.

They were the first party of emigrants to arrive overland, although with scarcely more than they wore on their backs, or carried. Among their numbers were included the future first mayor of San Jose, the founder of the city of Stockton, and the founder of Chico, a delegate to the convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln, and two or three who were merely quietly prosperous. The very last living member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party died in 1903 at the age of 83. Given their hairs-breadth adventures on the emigrant trail, I imagine that he, like most of his comrades would have been pleasantly surprised at having the words “natural causes” or “old age” appear anywhere in their obituaries.

06. November 2006 · Comments Off on Bidwell-Bartleson, 1841 · Categories: General, Good God, History, Old West, Pajama Game

The westward movement of Americans rolled west of the Appalachians and hung up for a decade or two on the barrier of the Mississippi-Missouri. It was almost an interior sea-coast, the barrier between the settled lands, and the un-peopled and tree-less desert beyond, populated by wild Indians. To be sure, there were scattered enclaves, as far-distant as the stars in the age of “shanks’ mare” and team animals hitched to wagons, or led in a pack-train: far California, equally distant Oregon, the pueblos of Santa Fe, and Texas. And men in exploring parties, or on trade had ventured out to the ends of the known continent… and by the winter of 1840 there were reports of what had been found. Letters, rumor, common talk among the newspapers, and meeting-places had put the temptation and the possibility in peoples’ minds, to the point where an emigrating society had been formed over that winter. The members had pledged to meet, all suitably outfitted and supplied on the 9th of May, 1841 at a rendezvous twenty miles west of Independence, on the first leg of the Santa Fe Trail, intent for California, although none of them had at the time any clear idea of where to go, in order to get there.

A handful of wagons, two or three at a time straggled into the meeting place, at Sapling Grove, in the early weeks of May, until there were about thirty-five men, which was considered a suitable size of the party. There were, in addition to the men, ten children and five women: three wives, the widowed sister of one of them, and a single unmarried woman, and it would appear that none of them had been into the far West before. They had a vague notion of the latitude of San Francisco Bay, and perhaps were dithering for some days over whether to follow the long- established Santa Fe Trail, or the slight track which wandered off in the direction of the fur-trading post at Fort Laramie and from there on to Oregon. While they were still making up their minds, a small party of Jesuit missionaries led by the legendary Father Pierre De Smet and bound for Ft. Hall, in the Oregon territory arrived. The Jesuits had hired the equally legendary mountain man, Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick as their guide, and the California party attached themselves to this party, no doubt with a certain amount of relief. Sufficient to the days’ travel were the evils thereof, and the Jesuits and “Broken Hand” would accompany them for the first thousand miles.

They left on the 12th of May, after electing one John Bartleson as nominal captain… but like the Stephens-Townsend Party of three years later, seemed to have functioned more or less as a company of equals. They moved slowly for the first few days, having gotten word that another wagon and a small party of men was trying to catch up to them; ten days later, they did so. Among the late-comers was Joseph Chiles, who would eventually cross and recross the California trail many times over the following fifteen years. Another three days later, the party was joined by a single elderly horseman, traveling alone, penniless and without weapons, trusting in the protection of the God he served, the Methodist Rev. Joseph Williams. The Reverend Williams had taken it into his head to go forth and minister to the heathen Indians. Arriving at Sapling Grove to find the party already gone, he had ridden alone through the wilderness to join them. Whether this was an act of jaw-dropping naivety, or saintliness is a matter of perspective.

Under the stern direction of Fitzpatrick, the party reached Fort Laramie after 42 days of hard travel. The party traveled in a mixture of conveyances and teams: The Jesuits in four mule-drawn carts and a single small wagon, then eight emigrant wagons drawn by horse and mule teams, then a half-dozen drawn by ox teams. The cracking pace set by the mule carts meant many exhausting hours in harness for the slower oxen, which a single day of rest at Ft. Laramie did nothing to make up for. And supplies were already running short. They hunted for buffalo along the valley of the Sweetwater, and met up with a party of 60 trappers on the Green River, who told them flat-out that it was impossible to take wagons over the mountains and desert and mountains again to California. At that point a small group of seven men packed it in and headed back to Missouri, and all but thirty one men and Mrs. Nancy Kelsey decided to carry on with the trail towards Ft. Hall and Oregon.

Their further adventures are well-documented, as there were four diarists among them. A fair proportion of them became successful and pillars of their respective communities in later life, although one of them, Talbot Greene later turned out to be an embezzler escaping the authorities. He was pleasant, well-liked and trusted by the others, serving as their doctor, and carried with him to California a large chunk of lead. No one could fathom why he needed quite so much of this commodity; even then, it was considered bad from to pry too much into others’ personal affairs.

(To be continued)

05. November 2006 · Comments Off on Friends Helping Friends · Categories: Ain't That America?, Eat, Drink and be Merry, Home Front, Pajama Game

I learned a couple of months ago that a close colleague had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that apparently is somewhat advanced. He has been undergoing chemo and radiation therapy in the hopes of reducing the tumor to an operable size. He is a fairly young man in his thirties, and recently married to a wonderful woman with two children. She was previously married and involved, respectively, with two men not particularly stable spousal material.

In order to help with the expenses and reduced disability income, several people at work organized a benefit that RHG, Real wife and I attended last night. The festivities began with a Midwestern hog roast. Loyal Readers may recall that I am a great fan of New England clambakes, but a hog roast comes close (a real Texas barbecue is on my list of things to do). How can you beat a locally slaughtered whole hog cooked over an open fire served with homemade potato salad and baked beans? We then had about an hours worth of live music by a local band composed of forty and fifty something year old rockers. Other musicians of local notoriety shared the stage throughout the night – all very good. Yours truly demurred (all I can really play well is the opening riff of Over the Hills and Far Away). The band then took a break for a couple of hours and hundreds of donated items were auctioned. Loyal Readers may also recall that I am a sucker for auctions, having furnished much of my home at local antique sales. A silent auction was held throughout the evening for numerous other items. Then the band played on until about one a.m.

The person for whom the benefit was held, in cahoots with another colleague, started Hawaiian Shirt Friday a couple of years ago. I think that the original reason was to give our then-clueless management something to be paranoid about, although I cannot confirm that to have been the motivation. In any case, a dedicated group of us wear the most outrageously hideous Hawaiian shirts every Friday, winter included. I have a nice supply of Havana Jack silk shirts purchased at a Kohl’s clearance sale, although many of the guys have found that ebay offers the ugliest. In any case, Hawaiian shirts and leis were the attire of choice for the evening.

Attendance was, in a word, unbelievable. Fire department occupancy regulations were broken. Former colleagues came from as far as San Diego and North Carolina. Real Wife and I were fortunate in finding a table early with another couple, and there were plenty of other early and pre-teens for RHG to hang out with (thereby precluding the agony of hanging out with Mom and Dad). Real Wife was a little stressed about not being able to have a cigarette given the presence of her students, until I pointed out that the parking lot was a side door away. Given the upcoming auction, we limited our intake to two bottles each of Old Milwaukee Light (the beer of the gods); RHG had sufficient ID to drink Shirley Temples. As is usually the case, the auction brought some outrageous bidding, with a strawberry pie and can of Cool-Whip going for $500. The buyer, a former irreverent (I mean Monty Python irreverent) engineer now working in San Diego, then auctioned it again – offering his face as a target for said pie. Two hundred dollars later the offer was accepted and consummated. For my part, I bought a beautiful set of red-oak mission style end tables crafted by one of our more woodworking-gifted engineers. My friend who has cancer comes from a family of Midwestern dirt track racers (You may be familiar with the Outlaw genre – open cockpit with huge V-8s and lots of wing), so the organizers requested auction items from various NASCAR teams. Almost without exception they responded with t-shirts and hats which, in these parts, are considered uniform of the day. The number 8 is huge in these parts, and it brought the biggest money.

My friend was having a good day as far as the effects of the various therapies, and was therefore able to attend. You will never find a more self-effacing, kind, and true-hearted individual. His wife, when recently asked how she was holding up, replied that he saved her life, and now it was her duty to save his. Before I left, I caught a glimpse of him standing alone, worn and tired, but yet watching lovingly at the hundreds of people who had gathered to help him and his family. It was a moment of indescribable sadness for me, knowing that the odds do not favor him. Nonetheless, I admired him for the fact that he has led his life in such a manner that so many people would come from all over the country to support him. How many of us can lay claim to that?

What have I learned from my friend? Drink milk, be an optimist, listen to what others have to say, be anxious to learn what others would teach you, and finally, be an optimist.

01. November 2006 · Comments Off on The Jumping-Off Places · Categories: General, History, Old West, Pajama Game

(Yet another in my interminable series about the 19th Century emigrant trail)

These were the places where the trails all began: the trails that lead to Oregon, to the Mormon colonies in Utah, to California, and before them, into the fur-trapping wildernesses in the Great Basin of the Rocky Mountains, and the commercial trade to Santa Fe.

Five towns, all along a 200-mile stretch of the Missouri River; many of which have long-since outgrown their original footprint as a river-boat landing on the edge between civilization and wilderness, leaving only the smallest traces here and there among a century and a half of building up and sprawling outwards. The modern towns of Kansas City, Weston-Leavenworth, St. Joseph, Nebraska City and Council Bluffs-Omaha, were the places where the journey began. They were once rowdy, muddy, enormously crowded in those months when the emigrant, exploring, or trading parties were preparing to set out. Primitive, bursting with excitement, overrun with emigrants and stock pens, the crossroads where merchants sold everything necessary for the great journey, the very crossroads of the west; Indians and mountain men, Santa Fe merchants and soldiers, emigrants, missionaries and foreigners passed each other in the spaces between buildings that did duty as streets. They were the inland coast, from which the emigrants looked out upon the sea of grass and made preparations.
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29. October 2006 · Comments Off on Apple Update · Categories: General, Home Front, Pajama Game, Rant, Technology

Well, the 250 GB external hard drive has arrived, and the Mac Mini should be here on Halloween. Last weekend I made a Herculean effort to get RHG’s computer (Gateway P4 2.0 – GHz) to a) work and b) access the Internet. I had partial success with a., but the Internet access was more challenging. I finally resorted to downloading IE7 to a thumb drive and installing it. No luck. The best course of action at that point was to reinstall Windows XP Pro, the unintended result being that I reformatted the hard drive, lost everything not Windows-connected, and was still Internet challenged.

Plan B. was to replace the whole box with Real Wife’s old machine (Gateway Celeron – a real piece of crap) which since new has been afflicted with the silicon version of Alzheimer’s disease. It could, however slowly, access the Internet, but her games simply would not run. I virus-checked it with no results. After being driven crazy with RHG’s boredom, I told her to use Real Wife’s computer when otherwise not in use. Understand that RW’s computer has Norton Internet Security, is update automatically every night, and is virus scanned weekly. To make a long story short, I spent the better part of last night rebuilding the Windows registry. Something caused a Norton error that read “TCP/IP Not Installed”, meaning that incoming email was not being scanned. This came after RHG reported that Lemony Snicket’s A series of Unfortunate Events kept locking up with some sort of email screen. I suspect this was somehow related to her Hotmail account, although Instant Messaging may also be a culprit. I got everything back up to speed (including getting rid of programs that were mysteriously self-installed such as Weatherbug and MyWebSearch), and promised Real Wife that RHG would be forever banned from that computer.

Plan C was to tell RHG that she was getting her birthday present early. I realized today that I do not have a USB keyboard, so I had Real Wife pick one up during her weekly 20 mile track to Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, it has bells and whistles that require that it be used in a Windows machine. I will therefore try to borrow a keyboard from work until next week or, failing that, buy one from our local Dell “Superstore” (yes, in a town of 2,500 people we have a Dell Superstore). I don’t particularly care for the proprietor (or Dell for that matter), but it will work out because I can tell him that I only need the keyboard – I bought the computer elsewhere.

Which brings me to the point of this post. It should be apparent that there is a common thread to this and related posts by yours truly. RHG is a pox upon every computer she uses. I love her dearly, but there you have it. I’ve looked at the history of her usage, and all I see are typical web sites that an early teen would be drawn to like a moth to a flame. I suspect that malware practitioners using human engineering have targeted her demographic. Hence the Mac choice. In addition to a different OS, I am now pondering what other safeguards are appropriate. I know that Norton offers security software for Macs, but is it necessary? I realize that the threat will increase as Macs become more popular, but I would rather not pay for another subscription until I have to. Nothing on her machine is mission critical, so I suppose I can afford to be a beta test for the first widespread Mac virus outbreak (RHG may disagree, but it’s my AMEX card). The real question is whether that threat is a) already present, or b) imminent. I’ll spend the money if it is well spent, but it is just one more thing to keep track of. I am taking other precautions as well, such as migrating RHG from Hotmail to Gmail and looking for alternatives to IM (I am guessing that a mass migration amongst RHG’s circle will please many other parents, and perhaps significantly reduce the revenues of our local computer superstore (many of which are derived from near terminal malware infections).

On a related topic, I’ve spent the remainder of the weekend doing work-related patent due diligence. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve downloaded IE7 and installed it on all of the machines in my domain. I know, I know, IE is considered to inferior to Firefox et al., and many of you will probably tell me that its use is probably the root of my problems. Nonetheless, I like IE7. Patent due diligence requires simultaneous access to several on-line databases, as well as a word processor and spreadsheet, and everything worked smoothly. I particularly like the tab system, where you can have multiple web pages open without clogging up the bar at the bottom that shows what programs are running.

Tomorrow after work I have to patch the tube on RHG’s bike. Finally, a project that is a more traditional “Dad Project”.

25. October 2006 · Comments Off on Literary Persuasion · Categories: Domestic, General, Memoir, Pajama Game

So, I always was interested in being a writer, having actually begun to scribble down stories and adventurous narrations from when I was in the seventh grade, or shortly thereafter. Junior High school was just as deadly, and most of my peers were just loathsome enough that taking that particular refuge in imagination was a perfectly sensible response for someone whose nose was buried in a book very nearly twenty-four seven anyway. I liked to read stories, and I liked write them, and to think up stories and tell them to people… especially to my little brother Sander, who was a perfect mark for some of my best. Like the one I told him, when we were at the beach, once when he was about five; there was a factory or a power plant away down the coast, with the towers and chimneys just barely visible. I told him that it was a factory for making soap; that it sucked in all the white foam off the waves that were breaking all along the beach in front of us, and transformed it into soap and detergent.

Then there was the one for Blondie, when she lost a helium-filled balloon; as it floated away, I told her about the Secret and Mystical Island of Balloons, away off in the middle of the Pacific. It was the natural home for all balloons, where they went as soon as they escaped from children who had let go of their strings. They even, I told her, had rescue squads who ran special missions to retrieve the remains of popped balloons from wastebaskets the world over, and revive them, once they were safe on the Mystical Island of Balloons. Then there was the time she was frightened by the original Gremlins movie; she insisted there were gremlins under her bed. Heck, I had once heard leprechauns under mine. “How did you know they were leprechauns?” asked my mother, when she found me sleeping in the closet the next morning. I had curled up there for some peace and quiet; the leprechauns were very rackety. “Because they were little enough to be under my bed, and they sounded like Grandpa Jim, “ I told her; always logical. I told Blondie that she was safe from gremlins as long as our cats, Patchie and Bagheera, were sleeping on her bed; it was a little known fact that cats were absolute death on gremlins. One of the hundreds of reasons I love small children, they are so gullible.

The trouble with going straight into writing became clear to me along about the time that I went into college for that amusingly useless degree in English, when a couple of things gradually made themselves clear to my young and wide-eyed self. One of them was that only a very few of the duly and properly anointed works of Great Modern English Literature written after about 1930 did not bore me into a coma. Seriously: the reading list for a course in the Modern Novel was enough to make me want to slash my wrists, it was that depressing. Secondly, I realized that of the writers I did enjoy, both ancient and modern… most of them had done something else! They had done something else, seriously and with varying degrees of success before picking up the old goose quill and writing. (Classic quip about trying to earn a living as a writer: “It’s like hooking. Before you start charging for it, better be sure you’re pretty good.)

Just look at the list: Chaucer— diplomat and courtier. Shakespeare — actor and theatrical manager. Dickens — newspaper and magazine writer. Kipling — reporter. Mark Twain — reporter. HH Monro— ok, so he was a man about town and wrote on the side. Sir Walter Scott — lawyer. Robert Lewis Stevenson — trained as a lawyer, worked as a travel writer. Thackeray — journalist and editor. Even the modern popular writers that I liked most had done something else for a bit. James Jones —- soldier. Raymond Chandler — oil bidness. Dorothy Sayers pottered around in advertising, and so did Peter Mayle of Provence fame. Carl Hiaason — newspaper reporter. Hemmingway — well, he squeezed in some reporting. Joseph Wambaugh — policeman. James Herriot spun a career as a veterinarian into four books plus. Only JRR Tolkien camped serenely in the academic utopia for most of his writing life, but he had served in World War I.

There were some exceptions either way, of course, but those works of literature, most especially the modern writers anointed by the academe seemed…. Well, pretty juiceless. Enervating. Arid. Given over to navel-gazing, and the weaving of elaborate language with nothing much to say. Even those few who did attempt something more in a novel than a dry exercise in special language effects seemed to look at real life, and real people as if they were something faintly exotic, carefully placed in a natural setting in a zoo and seen through a plate glass window. It almost seemed as if doing something else, anything else for a while filled a writer up with people, experiences, scraps of odd conversation and occurrences… filled them up with life and energy, and that was the kind of writer I wanted to be. Besides, going out and doing something else for a while looked like being a lot more fun than hanging around for post-graduate studies.

Comment #1, unaccuntably killed by SPAMINATOR, for which I extend apologies:

Email : jocrazy02@yahoo.com
Author : Joe
“One of the hundreds of reasons I love small children, they are so gullible.”

When my boys were about 6&7 years old, they had a penchant for testing
escallators. What small boy doesn’t like an escallator? So we were visiting
SEARS one time and their escallator was down for maintenance. They had the
bottom all cordoned off, the steel access panels open and aside, and work lights
shining down in the bowels of the machinery. Scattered around the opening were
several articles of children’s clothing they had been using for rags. I pointed
those out to my boys and said “See? That’s what happened to the last little
boy who played on the escallator. They had to take it apart to get him out and
all that was left were his clothes.” It was one of those Kodak moments and I
had no camera to take a picture of those big round eyes staring at that horrible
sight of the shredded, dirty clothing. All that remained of that last little
boy who played on the escallator.

My youngest is 24 and he STILL remembers me telling that story. LOL

Keep writing. It inspires the imagination of your readers at the most unexpected
of moments.

And as for the great writers? I still remember suffering under the required
reading list back in HS Senior English. Adam Bede. Wuthering Heights. Scarlet
Letter. If I hadn’t been a science fiction fan, that dry as old bones writing
would have destroyed my love of reading forever. I know it has a place in
literature, but I just couldn’t find a place for it in my reading.

Coment #2, also unaccountably killed by SPAMINATOR

Author : Matt
I had a friend who told his nephews that he had four hearts and used to be a
trapeze guy in the circus. He was very funny and never missed an opportunity to
spin a yarn, about anything at all to anyone. He was a computer geek for a
living – at one point he was on a team, employed by [large Detroit auto company]
that hacked into [large Detroit auto company’s] computers, networks, etc. to
test security.

I am not sure why we still have the current iteration of SPAMINATOR, as all it seems to do is delete and insult our regular commenters

20. October 2006 · Comments Off on You Know It’s Time to Retire When (061020) · Categories: Air Force, General, Pajama Game

Thanks to the new downsizing “Force Shaping” measures, it looks like I’m back to retiring from the Air Force next year, as originally planned.

I know I’ve made “jokes” about why I’m retiring but tonight I’m thinking more about the truth of the matter.

The truth ladies and gentlemen is that I’m in the way. No, I’m not sinking into some sort of dark place, I’m facing reality.

Reality: I joined the Air Force late and I’m 22 years into it and I’m 45 years old. I’m as old as most Colonels. I’m older than some Chiefs. My generation, my year group of folks is almost entirely retired. I’m feeling not alone, but lonely. There just aren’t that many folks my age in the Air Force anymore. I was at a symposium a couple of weeks ago with about 100 other Master Sergeants and I just didn’t feel like I fit in. That had a lot to do with age and the Class A type of folks who typically take this seminar.

Reality: If I’m going to make Senior, I’ve got at least another year and a half of rehabbling my file to make a decent board score. Look, I’m having fun being part of the booster club and being part of a Top 3 that’s really involved with helping the younger folks, but I’m just not willing to suck certain Chief’s schwing-stick or kiss another Chief’s butt to make sure my file rises to the top. I would love to maintain the illusion that the Senior or Chief’s board is based completely on a stratified system of filling in the right events in the right order. I’d be lying to you and myself if I ignored the fact that Chief’s talk amoungst themselves.

Reality: I simply can’t hack the new PT Standard. Because of past abuses and some genetics, I’ve got a blood pressure problem and a cholesterol problem. My feet, ankles, knees and lower back, simply don’t tolerate high impact aerobics any more. All of this is in no small part to continuing to doing things I shouldn’t have done and not doing other things that I should have done. Bottom line, I should be doing Tai Chi, Yoga, vigorous walking or low impact Cross-Training, and not Tae Kwon Do and pounding pavement. I’m all for service before self. I’m done hurting myself though.

Reality: The Air Force is changing…again. When I came in, we didn’t think, we KNEW that we were going to one day go head to head with the Soviets. My generation was pretty darn sure that we’d have to pick up an M16 to protect a base long enough to get the planes off the groud and then figure out how the hell to get out of Dodge…or not. In the 90s we were mostly thinking we might have to spank the Chinese around a bit or eventually get around to Iraq or Iran, but all that would be done from a distance or a secure forward deployed location. They told us and told us and told us that they wanted our brains, they wanted our technical skills. Today we want smart jocks, not nerds. It’s not enough to be proficient at your job, once again we’re expected to be warriors. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m simply not a warrior. I don’t belong in a war zone. I would be a hinderance. I’m more worried about what my life means to my family and friends than I am about convoys or other NCOs or Airmen around me. Believe me, that hurts to admit, but on the other hand, I know it’s kind of normal. I also don’t have the nervous system I used to. Simple crap startles me. Boyo, my Ninja son, has managed to jump start my heart on more than one ocaission in the past few months. If my body follows the route of my Dad and sister, this is not going to get better in the next couple of years.

Reality: I’m becoming more jaded and cynical and I’m having a harder time keeping my mouth shut in front of the younger folks. I’m saying things out loud that I should keep to myself and other Senior NCOs. I’m close to becoming one of those old, cranky, bitter bastards that I can’t stand. I still have my sense of humor, so I haven’t crossed the line…yet…but I can see it coming.

Reality: I don’t see how the hell the Air Force is going to maintain it’s mission with the current round of personnel cuts. That’s a problem. I don’t see a solution. It’s time for me to get out of the way so folks who can see a way, can take my spot and get it done. I’ve managed to keep the dam plugged so far, but they’re temporary solutions to problems that are going to get worse instead of better.

And finally, I understand what the word weary means. I’m weary. I need to quit doing this before I turn into one of those guys that retires and has a heart attack six weeks after he walks out the door.