Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Something to Be Said

I love small towns. They make me feel so far removed from the awful events of Iraq and world terror. Small towns give me recess from anguish—I suppose because the pace is slow and the volume low.

Yesterday I prepared three manuscripts to mail internationally. Two were going to Canada, and one to the United Kingdom. All three required a return envelope with International Reply Coupons. I went to the local post office to obtain the coupons and finish the mailings.

US Post Office, Woodlawn TX, Population 283

The local postmistress greeted me with a wide arching wave—a colloquial howdy. She was eating a Snickers candy bar while Judge Judy screamed at a defendant on the television.

“International what? I don’t recall ever having such,” she said. “What in creation would you do with one?”

I explained their purpose.

“Guess we’ve never had a call for one,” she said. You better try over to the Jefferson office. But mind you they close at four.” My watch read 3:20 PM.

US Post Office, Jefferson TX, Population 1,864

I arrived at 3:49--breathing hard from trotting through the parking lot with my parcels.

The clerk was a stout woman of about fifty, and she began to drum her fingers on the counter as I explained what I needed. Her level of attentiveness seemed compromised as she examined me over the rims of her glasses.

“I’ve heard of those,” she said. She turned to another clerk in the adjacent cubicle.

“Carl! Don’t we have those foreign return things?” I could see that Carl’s wheels were turning.

“I think they’re those yellow slips in the safe.” Carl had a curious task of his own. He was artistically arranging a row of stamps on a tubular package big enough to contain a set of water skis.

“Get one of them out and show it to him.” Although Carl was mostly obscured by the large tube, one arm ventured out and pointed toward the safe.

The woman disappeared through a plastic hanging curtain—the kind that lift trucks part and pass through. She returned a few minutes later, rubbing the coupon on her sleeve so as to slick it up.

“Is this it? This old thing? Look at all those funny words on it. Is that French, or what?” She turned away, shouting over the partition that was plastered with faded wanted posters.

“Carl! This thing is marked $1.05. Is that an old price? Is that what we still charge?

She looked down at me reassuringly, with the kindness of a doting aunt.

“I think foreign postage may have gone up a smidgen,” she warned, trying to prepare me for the dime or quarter hike that Carl was likely contemplating.

“Sell it for the $1.05 if he wants it, I don’t know the price.”

With the water ski box now on the outbound conveyor, Carl took over the woman’s counter position.

“Okay, next customer," he said, straining on his tiptoes to see over my head. He motioned me to the side, waving his hand briskly as if fanning a campfire.“Oh! Sorry,” I said, feeling a bit humbled. I moved to the far end of the counter amidst furrowed frowns and curious stares from the patrons.

“How many of these do you want?” The woman asked.“I’ll need three of them,” I said. Once again she disappeared behind the lift truck curtain. “No, wait,” I shouted. “Better give me six, so next time I won’t have to drive over here. They don’t have them in Woodlawn.”
She emerged from the safe room, once again buffing the coupons on her sleeve.

“I guess they’ve been locked up in there all this time, but I could only find two. I suppose you can have them both, and then we’ll be done with them.” I took her remark to mean there would be no restocking of the safe.

I carefully thought about which two of the packages should get the coupons. I decided that the third recipient would have to be happy with cash, and I placed a dollar and a nickel inside the one destined for the UK. Maybe the person opening the package would note my Woodlawn return address and somehow forgive my decision.

I chose the UK destination because I know that Tony Blair and those folks are among our only remaining friends.

* * *
(C) Copyright 2006 by the author. Illustration by license from the photographer, Bradley I. Marlow

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Brothers Grim

There’s a mother’s wish as each child is born.
"It’s more than a wish, it’s a prayer," Mama once said. “As my boys grow up Lord, please make everything all right.”

”Mo” Maurice, 1915-1956

“Mother said there was something special about being a Texan—something rich. She was right—I made good. I followed my aviator dreams, soldier-of-fortune-style. I made more money in one month flying airplanes in Burma and Indonesia than most people made in a year. My cable address was "Tailwind"—so named for my adventurous spirit.
I made my circle of intrigue complete when I married Annie, a Chinese airline stewardess I met over a 12-hour joust with vodka gimlets. We were quite the stir when we returned to East Texas on visits.
One Sunday Annie wore a jade green dress to church. It had tiny silver dragons embroidered all over it, and was slit way up past her thigh on one side. Preacher Langston at First Presbyterian politely asked us not to come back.

Eventually Annie took me for everything—while I wasn't looking. I was distracted by a different dragon—a quart of booze a day. That Amber River drowned me at age 41. It's funny—I always worried about dying in a crumpled cockpit in a rice field. Mama warned me about liquor, but I got hooked from the beginning.”

"Boots" Mitch Bonham, 1918-1962

“When I got out of the Navy I chased after the sawdust that coursed my veins. I wanted to be a showman. I started with two trained bears and ended up with one of the largest circuses in the South. Doctors kept telling me my hobbling back pain was just a calcium deposit. It wasn't.
In '62, I rode a rented Cadillac to Showmen's Rest. I guess I squandered my deathbed words by saying how "the show must go on." I said it because the words seemed so noble—a ringmaster's epitaph. As my family evaporated in that haze, I could tell they wanted to hear something else but by then my words had trailed off.

Well, the circus didn't go on. It folded. I knew my greedy sons-a-bitchin’ partners couldn't run it. They never understood. They thought the circus was only about the money thing.”

"Penny" Eddie Branch Jr., 1920-1980

“I read someplace that if a person got tagged with the name "Jr." he would spend the rest of his life chasing a ghost. I got tired of such an elusive legacy at age fifteen and ran away from home.
Then I lied about my age and sneaked into the Army. I was stationed in Germany and married a woman I met in a bar. For my honeymoon, I went AWOL and stayed drunk for fifteen days. One night the MP’s spotted me going into a liquor store and I got grabbed. I was shipped off to Fort Leavenworth Army prison. It was there they discovered my true age, and I got a dishonorable discharge for all my sins. I have no idea what happened to Jeanette, my German bride.
I ended up back home only to figure out I was really meant to roam. I left again and my friend Lootie Rainwater went with me. We hopped on and off trains heading no place in particular.
One wet morning his hand slipped from mine and he fell to the track. The train cut off his leg.

After that, Lootie and I drank together every day for the next twenty-four years. We took our naps in New Orleans' gutters—marinating in sweet-and-sour slime. We eventually hocked Lootie's wooden leg for four pints and forgot what pawn we left it in. After that Lootie just propped himself against me until he died.
You know what? All we ever wanted was to find our river of gold. It would be a happy stream—where honey poured, not Ancient Age.”

“Clipper” Archie Wilbur, 1926-1960

“I was little in more than name. I was the youngest and smallest—some said puny. Maybe that is what attracted me to the Marine Corps, where attainment of rank is the great equalizer.

When I mustered out I saved enough money to start my own business. I bought a Standard Coffee route and made deliveries from Marshall, Texas to near Little Rock. I got tired of the road and went to work as a repairman at the local Pontiac dealer. I learned everything about body shop work and opened my own place. It did good.

When I was 34 I returned from a two-week vacation in Arkansas. My wife and I were looking over snapshots from the trip. Suddenly something like a giant vise grabbed my chest. I felt my eyes bulging out of their sockets as I crumpled to the floor.
Therefore, since I've now experienced something everybody wants to know about, here's the secret: Death is a feeling just like when TV signs off at night. There is the National Anthem and an Air Force fly-over. Then there is that annoying hissing noise coming from a snowy screen.

I hope you suckers ain’t counting on more than that, because that’s all there is.”

(C) Copyright 2002 by Lad Moore

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Time I Might’ve Got Croaked

All cotton ain’t candy.

There was ample lore surrounding Caddo Lake in deep East Texas. The dark glades and the mossy tapestries draped from the trees made it humbling, and oddly a bit reverent. Some of the folks there believed that to be “saved,” in the non-spiritual sense, it was necessary to remove the “City” from the “Boy”. There were many acceptable ways to do that, including bloodletting by pond leeches, or wading thigh-deep through Alligator Pass in the dark of the moon. Oh—and there was one other way.

My friend Turk Henry was a river rat of the sixth degree, having been raised by fifth-generation Caddo people, and having actually attended Karnack public schools. Karnack Texas was the celebrated home of Lady Bird Johnson, even before she was anybody but T.J. Taylor’s daughter. T.J. operated a general store in Karnack, with a no-nonsense advertisement above the door that proclaimed him “Dealer in Everything”. Other than T.J.’s store, the only other asterisk on Karnack’s dot on the map belonged to its Army Ammunition Depot, which probably placed the town on every Soviet spy map as well.
Turk’s life was the river, and his sport was to harvest its bullfrogs. Slay Henry, Turk’s dad, kept a number of flat bottom boats resting on the bank under the house. Warped and bent from countless forays against cypress knees, each boat had been given a name, so that Slay could properly identify each member of his little fleet. “In case they get stole,” he said. Of the four boats, “Old Yellaw” was Turk’s favorite, because of its “shaller draft.”

One day the two of us were sitting in Old Yellaw, which was beached beside the house. Turk’s dad stepped out on the porch, and sensing that we might be bored, offered up an idea.

“Turk, take the City Boy gigging. Them Pine Island swamp gasses puts off a certain-teed tonic of purification.” With that, he spat tobacco into the water and mumbled his way back into the house. Except for the “City Boy” label, I was delighted with the suggestion. Being invited to go with Turk on a frog gig was like being asked to the prom by the head twirler.

“Be here at eleven tomorrow night,” Turk said. He too spat into the water as he went inside.

The next night, I showed up at the agreed hour wearing dark clothes and new knee-high rubber boots as instructed. Turk had someone with him, and they were loading things into “Yellaw.”

“First things first.” Turk said. He pointed me to a chair that was glowing yellow from the oil lantern hanging above it. I sat in it, feeling a bit like a courtroom spectator.

“This here is Boze Smitherman,” Turk said, pointing to the stranger. “Boze always gigs with me. He’s the oarsman.” I gave Boze the traditional Southern chin-bob, that head-motion that replaces spoken greetings. He gave me the chin-bob back. It meant that we were now lifelong friends.

Turk began. “Okay, Frog 101. Two things you gotta learn.” As Turk spoke, Boze moved back into the darkness, and resumed his preparations.

Turk continued. “Dead silence is the rule. Frogs have little Doppler radar units on both sides of their head. They are little acoustic membranes shaped like kettledrum covers, and they are so sensitive they can tell if you are even thinking about making noise. Secondly, frogs are equipped with little shooters. They squirt when you grab them, and can shoot their stream at very precise angles—your eye, or worse, your mouth. And guess what? It ain’t river water they’re squirting.”

Having been trained in the two essential lessons for the night, we piled into old Yellaw and pushed off. Our job descriptions were simple. Turk did the gigging from the prow; I did the sacking in the middle seat, and Boze skulled the boat from the rear. As we moved down the channel into Pine Island Slough, both of them warned me one last time about noise. There was to be nothing but whispered conversation beyond this point. As we slid silently through the darkness, I held tightly to the burlap sack, choking its neck as if it already contained a mess of bullfrogs.

We tacked left and right across the slough. Boze seemed to know the perfect route to avoid the random cypress knees. The sounds of midnight became increasingly loud as we navigated through Pine Island, and surrounding us on all sides were the hoarse grrroats of big bullfrogs. Like a choir director, Turk seemed to sense which frog’s sound belonged where.

“Big one over here,” he whispered, gesturing a few degrees to the right. Boze adjusted the direction and we headed straight to the bank. Suddenly, Turk’s flashlight broke the ink of night, and my eyes transfixed on its beam. With a smooth jab, we had our first frog. The handoff went smoothly, and I stuffed the big bullfrog into the sack.

Boze turned the boat to the left, following Turk’s extended arm. “Double-ups,” he whispered. Frog-101 had not explained “double-ups,” but I figured I might need both hands. Turk made two quick thrusts with the gig, and produced two especially large frogs. I was impressed.

The shore was becoming thick with cypress and overhanging bayberry bushes. As we passed underneath vines and brush, Spanish moss flowed over me, trailing across my face and arms like parting cobweb curtains. I began to worry about ticks, because Spanish moss is said to be a favorite breeding ground for deer ticks. Mosquitoes were feasting on my arms and neck, but I did not dare slap at them for fear of making a sound. Just as we passed beneath a large river birch, I heard a mushy thud. It was a dead sort of sound, like somebody dumped a shovel of wet sand into the boat.

“Shhhh!” Whispered Boze. “Keep your boots along the side of the boat, so you won’t kick the rib.”

“Wasn’t me,” I whispered back.

Turk turned his light to the bottom of the boat, first checking the gunwale ribs, then the keel line on the floor. Had we breached the bottom on a cypress knee? Suddenly Turk’s light froze on an object that looked like a radiator hose from a ’57 Chevy. In that soft yellow light, even I knew what was lying there. An old rule of the river flew through my brain: “Any fat object dropping into your boat at midnight is most assuredly a Cottonmouth Moccasin.” To my dismay, he was heading for sanctuary under my burlap sack.

“Moccasin!” I shouted. In more panic than reason, I tossed the burlap sack overboard. The snake immediately coiled in revenge for my having removed his intended refuge. My rubber boots were now only inches away, and certainly a foot shorter than I wish I had bought. Questions were cascading through my brain. Does light blind a snake like it does a frog? Is it true they can strike three times their length? When you slash and suck out the poison, what if you have a cavity in your tooth? I began to regret skipping my last dental appointment with Dr Pierpoint.

Suddenly the world’s tardy bell went off. Turk began beating at the snake with the frog gig, and Boze likewise with his boat paddle. They were flailing the boat bottom like fan blades. We were rocking and pitching wildly, and the flashlight rolled back and forth across the floor like a dance-hall strobe.

Then, with a lucky stab, Turk speared the snake. It coiled quickly around the gig, and I was able to grab the flashlight. Turk heaved the snake-wrapped gig toward the lake. It sailed away like a track-meet javelin. Turk grabbed the light from my hand and shined it around the inside of the boat.

“Look for another one,” he said. “Sometimes at night they twist around each other like black licorice.” I never liked licorice, but only now realized why.

Satisfied that nobody had been bitten and the snake was a loner, Boze pushed us back into the main part of the slough.

The journey back seemed to take hours, and I spent it in prayers of thanks. Like a pulsating star, the dim light of Pine Island Pier soon cut through the night. Its glow represented the warmest welcome I ever recall. I knew that just past the pier was Turk’s house, safe above the water on its ten-foot stilts.

Yep, there’s lots of religion in the swamp.

* * *

© Copyright 2005 by the author, Lad Moore
Illustration (C) Copyright by the artist, Jim Jurica. Used by license.