Sunday, September 15, 2013


            I am a member of the Vietnam generation, a survivor of the draft, Johnson, Nixon, Bundy, and MacNamara’s band. I didn’t go to Vietnam. My service consisted of only one and a half days in the military, expelled from uniform because of a knee ailment common to growing young men, but I tried, enlisting when I was 18 because my grandfather served in World War One, my father in World War two, and it was my turn. A rather simplistic view, but it was a simpler time. While I was spared any personal horror of that useless war, many of my friends were not, and one of them was John Giese.

            A year my senior, he and I were members of a small group of cohorts in my high school who preferred laughing to fighting, thinking to grunting, and conversation over perspiration. Fledgling philosophers we were, flexing our green intellects at every opportunity, arguing just for fun, assuming opposing positions for laughs, and seldom taking ourselves, or anyone else for that matter, seriously. John was the unofficial leader of the group, the son of two college professors and a brother to Maryanne, a lovely young woman prone to breaking hearts and promises with a delightful smile that dissipated anger like fog in the wind. John was a brilliant student who sailed through high school with straight A’s and little effort, who could easily have gone on scholarship to nearly any college he chose. He was well liked by many of us but, because of his mind, his grades, and his honesty, not overly popular among the herd. Admired by teachers and many parents for his mind, appreciated by many young lovelies for his looks and personality, John remained his own man and went his own way, two reasons we were surprised when joined the military. He announced one day that he was leaving. The next day he was gone. I didn’t see him again for over two years.

            One autumn evening, while attempting to study in my college dorm room (a skill I never did master) a call from the desk informed me that a visitor awaited. It was a rare occurrence, and I hustled downstairs to find a grinning John Giese waiting for me, dressed in full uniform wearing a green beret. After a disgusting display of male bonding, we went out for a beer. Sitting in a small campus tavern some time later, John attracted the attention of a table of sailors who had drifted in the joint, the largest of whom had little good to relate about any branch of the military except the Navy. As time went on and he drank more beer, he began to aim his insults at John and, more specifically, John’s green beret. John smiled and ignored him. He had always been a rather mild mannered person, anything but confrontational, a thinker, not a fighter. As the insults became more personal, he suggested that we leave before things got out of hand. I agreed and, as we stood to go, the sailor, forty pounds heavier and six inches taller than John, moved to block our path and offered my friend serious insult directly in his face. John’s only reply was, “outside, Swabbie.”

            As the sailor turned to lead the way out of the tavern, John picked up a nearby barstool and slammed it across the man’s upper back, knocking the sailor face down on the dirty barroom floor. He flipped the dazed man over on his back, lifted him up a foot or so by the front of his uniform, and struck him a hammer blow across the bridge of his nose that sent blood spatters flying in all directions. Then John walked through the stunned crowd and out the door with me on his heels. At the time, it was the single most graphic display of controlled violence I had ever witnessed, and it shook me deeply. John grunted, “Gotta go. Call ya in a couple days,” and walked off down the street to his car.

            I went home for the weekend and told my grandfather of the incident, and how easily John had done what he did. “War changes a man, boy,” he said. “Can’t help it. Fellers that been through it ain’t never really the same no more.” That’s all he would say on the subject and I let it drop, but it worried me. Later that day I received a call from John who suggested we go pheasant hunting the next morning. I agreed. I called one of my grandfather’s cronies, a man named Arberry Yont for permission to hunt his land and to request that he chain up his massive, ill-tempered yard monster, a canine composed of equal parts of Newfoundland, chainsaw, and T-Rex. Arberry agreed, and the next morning John and I arrived at his empty home to hear the dog in question raging at us from his position of restraint in the back yard. We were preparing our various hunting accoutrement when the dog, now dragging a length of heavy chain, erupted from behind the house and headed straight for me. A hundred and thirty pounds of mottled brown attitude, complete with yellow ivories and excessive saliva, bore down on me like a freight train with fur. My gun was unloaded, and I simply could not move. John came over the hood of the car as the calamity was about to close with me, hit the dog with a body block, struggled briefly on the ground with the animal, and broke the dog’s neck. It took only seconds and the canine lay quivering on the cold earth. John, after calmly watching the dog die, turned to me. He had tears running down his face and was beginning to tremble. “Take me home,” he said. I did. That was the last time I ever saw my friend. A few days later I encountered his father who told me John had gone to Paris Island. That’s all I ever heard about him. His name is not on the wall, and now, nearly fifty years later I have no idea what ever became of him except the world lost John Geise, as it lost thousands upon thousands of other young men and their futures, some in the grave, some ruined in one way or another, and some still in-country, no matter where they are. Once in a while I still feel a twinge of guilt because I did not go to Vietnam. More often, I feel regret and anger because any of us did.

Monday, August 26, 2013

EL ROJO (Attitude In Red)

            His name was El Rojo. He was a rooster. I got him from Jeremiah Mavis when I lived in almost-Arkansas Missouri. Jeremiah Mavis was an Arkansas Ridge Runner. Big, raw-boned and redheaded, he was of hearty Ozark stock. His biggest claims to fame were his wife’s newly installed bosoms, and the Arkansas record crappie on his trailer wall.

            Jerry assumed all northerners to be ignorant, but for some reason he took a shine to me and would do almost anything, as long as it didn’t involve work, to assist in my southern education. Jerry operated on the fringes of the law. He made moonshine back in the hills somewhere, spotlighted deer on a regular basis, and kept fighting chickens. Cock fighting qualified as major entertainment in that area in those days, and Jerry had several prime contenders. When Sheriff Cletus F. “Bo” Dawkins shut Jerry’s operation down, he was left with more roosters than a man needed. I ran into him at the lumberyard. We jawed for a while and I informed him I was about ready to install eight hens in a chicken coop I was building.

            “Gotchee a rooster?” he asked.

            “Not yet.”

            “Naow, I’ll tell yew whut,” he went on. “Yew git thet thar coop set up, an’ I’ll gitchee a rooster thet’ll wear them girls plumb out! Git twenny-tew aigs a day outa them eight hens a yourn. Lemme know when yer ready.” Jerry was prone to exaggeration.

            I told him I’d call when it was rooster time and he asked to borrow a rifle to do a little hunting that night. It seems that Sheriff Dawkins had confiscated Jerry’s gun the week before. Nothing came without strings when dealing with Jerry.

            A few days later, chicken coop, feeder, waterer, nest boxes and hens in place, I called him about his offer of a rooster. He showed up a couple of hours later in road gear on an old Ford tractor. Apparently his truck wasn’t running again. He had a rooster in a sack and my rifle, badly in need of cleaning, on his lap.

            “Got ‘im rachear in this bag,” he grinned. “Son, this hyar is a, by Gawd, rooster! I wuz gonna fight ‘im, but naow I cain’t.”

            He held the sack over the edge of the chicken wire and dumped out the biggest rooster I’d ever seen.

            “His name’s El Rojo!” Jerry crowed. “Ain’t he somthin’?”

            He was something, indeed. Over two feet tall in various shades of red, he was steely of eye and belligerent in attitude. He peered at me briefly, then attacked me through the fence.

            “His wangs is clipped naow,” Jerry advised me as he climbed back aboard the tractor. “Ya’ll might wanna keep ‘em cut back some. I speck ol’ El Rojo’ll fly like a turkey if’n yew don’t. Have fun, Yankee!” He roared off down the lane.

            Some fun. Every time I got near the pen, Rojo was there, watching and waiting for another opportunity to attack me. Fearless, predatory, intimidating he was, and for several weeks I worked around that bird. Whenever I was in the chicken yard I had to watch my back, periodically ducking him as he flapped at my face, trying to spur me. The hens loved him, pumping out eggs like machines. Large, brown, often double-yolked, golden-centered specimens of the layers art poured forth in glorious bounty and I was glad to have them, but I paid a heavy price in dealing with that murderous rooster. Finally, I had all I could take.

            On the way to gather eggs one day, my job because of the obvious danger, I picked up a length of oak two-by-two and informed my questioning wife that I was going to kill that damn bird if he even looked at me sideways. Enough was enough. I was one step into the chicken yard when he came at me, chest high, spurs extended. I laid a swing on him that would have done credit to Babe Ruth and, when Rojo hit the ground, I knew he was dead. I picked him up by the feet and tossed him in the bed of my old Chevy truck to be disposed of later. Eating that rooster was out of the question.

            Later in the day I went back to the truck. The bird was gone. I assumed a raccoon or coyote had made off with him until that evening when I went to put up the girls. There he was, pacing with the hens from his position outside the fence. As I approached him, he eyed me lovingly and began to voice that particular chicken purr of contentment. He fell in beside me, walking where I walked, stopping where I stopped, staying close to me with the loyalty of a dog and offering me no hostility whatever. And so it went. From that day forward, when I worked outside, I would let him out of the pen and he was my companion. Clucking and purring as we went about our business. He learned to take a single kernel of corn from between my lips, without his beak touching my skin. He did his job admirably, keeping the hens happy and the egg basket full. His glorious crackling crow would echo around the place, his clucking would greet me as I’d approach the pen while he’d pace back and forth asking to be let out. He’d even sit in the porch swing with me, from time to time, and enjoy the evening breeze. Nothing else, people, dogs, cats, or pigs, could get close to him. He’d attack on sight, but he was devoted to me. When the time came, after nearly two years, for us to leave the place I did not know what to do with him. We gave the hens away, but El Rojo was so nasty to anyone but me nobody would have a thing to do with him.

            About a quarter mile behind the house, just in the edge of a patch of woods, was a spring-fed stock pond, a waterhole for various wild denizens in the area. I walked Rojo back there the evening we were ready to leave, scattered a gallon or so of chicken feed out in the weeds, and gently tied his leg to a small sapling with a piece of twine I was sure he could easily peck through. As I walked away he called to me, and I could hear him struggle with his bonds. I didn’t have the heart to look back.

            Well over a year later, I had occasion to visit an ex-neighbor lady who lived near that pond. At dusk, as I was preparing to leave, I heard a glorious crackling crow wafting up from the woods. I stopped and listened with appreciation.

            “Thet’s thet rooster ya’ll left by the pond when ya moved away,” she said. “Nasty bird. Won’t let ya near that pond unless ya carry a big stick. Ya got a stick, he’ll just chirp at ya, an’ follow right along like a dog.”

            It’s always nice to learn that old friends are doing well.





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Sunday, August 18, 2013


            The movie starred Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. My wife and I loved it. “What Women Want” is a very enjoyable romantic comedy about a male chauvinist pig who can, all of a sudden, hear what women are thinking. It also caused Laura and me to do some thinking about the battle of the genders. So far there is no clear winner, but women seem to be ahead on points…at least that’s what they’d like us to believe.

            Now before any feminine hackles start to rise, let me say that I’d like to see women win the fight, especially if they could do it in the next thirty seconds or so. I’m sick and tired of it all. I would readily admit defeat just to stop all the carnage, but unfortunately, my personal surrender would have no effect on the battle as a whole. I’d break ranks and run away, but that’s tough to do when you’re surrounded. I’ve tried screaming “Please don’t hurt me, I give up!” but the noise of the American Women’s Battle Cry drowns out my feeble shout. You know it. Many of you even utter it from time to time.

Men just don’t understand us!”

            Ladies, you’re right. We don’t. We absolutely, positively, do not understand women. The statement is a generality that is completely correct, as long as it is not applied to specifics. When it is applied to specifics, it is as absurd as any other sexist, racist, hateful utterance on the planet. Tell me men don’t understand women all day long, I have no problem. But if you tell me that I do not understand women because I am a man, smile.

            Even though I freely admit my guilt and complicity in the ongoing conflict, there are some double standards that irk me a bit. If a woman says “my husband just doesn’t understand me”, the rest of us, male and female alike, are supposed to look at her sympathetically and say “aaawwww”. If a man says “my wife just doesn’t understand me”, the rest of us look around for the poor, unsuspecting barfly he’s saying it to. Which brings me to another point. Be advised, I’m using the term “I” in the broadest possible sense, as a generality applying to men as a group, not to any specific man.

            If it is true that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then women are not from Venus and Mars. If I do not understand you because we are from different planets, what the hell makes you think you have such a firm grip on what makes me tick? Answer: You don’t.  Difference? I don’t expect you to understand me, and when you don’t, I don’t worry my pretty little head about it.

            There is a great deal of psychobabble out there on how little boys are programmed to be warlike, sidewalk-spitting, crotch-clutching, beetle-browed clods, and more than a little of it is true. Little girls are programmed, too. They are taught to keep some mystery in a relationship, to not give too much of themselves, emotionally or physically, away. They are also taught that they will have to suffer in one way or another at the hands and will of men. Then they are given various visions of prince charming, or vine covered cottages, or perfect picket fences, and told to aspire to them. Women have been taught fear and fantasy. Just like the guys, gals, you bought into the bull. We have all been misled, all of us. Let me say that again. ALL OF US.

            We have had stereotypes thrown at us from earliest memory, and our internal computers were programmed, whether we liked it or not, by generation after generation of people whose only qualification to be parents was the fact that somebody could get somebody else pregnant. We are, for the most part, composites of what we have been told we should be, what we have emulated from experience, or what we have run from because of fear. Even in our overreactions to sex, ours or somebody else’s, we are not consistent. Homosexual men, for the most part, get along with women fine, even love them dearly. Homosexual women are often antagonistic to men, especially those who strive so hard to appear male themselves.

            Let’s get back to the original question. What do women want? I don’t know, and neither do most women, for the very reasons I mentioned earlier. I suspect, in their heart of hearts, it’s much simpler than we have been led to believe. Fortunately, in my life, I have enjoyed association with a number of remarkable women, and what they seemed to most desire is also what most men want, when all the B.S. is scraped away. Love. Men and women don’t have to understand each other to love each other. Parents don’t need to understand their children, or children their parents. Love soars above all that.  It’s up to us to stop pointing fingers and making demands, and realize that while men may never understand women, and women may never understand men, a person can at least come close to understanding another person, even if one is male and the other female. When the generalities are dropped, it ain’t them against us any more. It’s just the two of you, each with the with the standard issue BS that comes with the respective gender, and each with plenty of love to go around once fear gets out of the way. It’s all part of a plan that we understand even less than we understand each other.

Monday, June 17, 2013


I’m going to date myself horribly in this piece, so let me admit the disgusting truth up front: I’m old. I have worked hard to reach this age, and the exertion required to continue climbing the ladder of years gets more and more difficult as time goes by but, I suspect, it is not nearly as taxing as the effort in which so many engage to remain young, or the self-abuse and struggle required to remain beautiful. Because I don’t give a rodent’s rectum about appearing to be half my age, and because I feel that those that prize form above function range from the sadly misguided to the laughably ludicrous, I am able to quash any shred of empathy for these poor souls and pass judgment on them without the slightest twinge of guilt. What fun.

While surfing television the other day, I encountered a short report on some terribly vital and celebrated fashion show. I watched a minute or so of the exhibition; stick figured women of indecipherable age slinking up and down an elevated walkway as onlookers photographed them and a commentators spoke of what the “right” people were wearing this season, as they implied that only the alarmingly unaware among us could even consider appearing in public without being draped in one of the magnificent creations on display.

Fashion bugs me. I do not engage in its pursuit. I am not concerned with labels. I do not care if a garment says Hillfiger or hill climber, Prada or nada. I consider those that are dependant upon such trivia to be as laughable as those that are famous for merely being famous. But this time, while watching the parade, my scorn of the fashionistas and the enriching shot of superiority that came with watching such a tableau while brushing dog hair off my Walmart sweatclothes and drinking coffee in the living room, was pushed aside by examining the women skulking up and down the runway. My God, ladies. What’s happened to you? When did such women, many of them only girls actually, so thin as to be emaciated, become beautiful? Did Twiggy start all this?

Those of you old enough to remember Twiggy…think back. How odd we thought she was, almost alien, nearly something from the mothership in Close Encounters. This big-eyed, no breasted, switch of a girl…asexual…boyish…painfully thin. Different? Sure. Attractive? Hardly. I have a tendency to shout “Eat a sandwich!” at these emaciated denizens of the vomitorium. Evidently Twiggy heard me. Some years later she appeared in a movie with Robin Williams and actually had a figure. Well past thirty, she was cute, womanly, attractive, and rather normal looking.

Let’s go back a decade or two before the madness struck, and recall some of the sex symbols of old. We will forego Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield, for they were nearly human cartoons of sexuality, and look at some others. Gina Lolabrigida, Elke Sommer, Ursela Andress, Jane Russell, Senta Berger, Ann Margaret…no walking skeletons these, no body builders either. And let’s not forget another shining example, Sophia Loren. Lovely in youth, outstanding in adulthood, amazing in age, giving lie to the bull that women must be young and thin to be attractive. It is simply not true, and yet we have sold this bill of goods to society’s daughters for several decades now. Who’s at fault? All of us of course, to varying degrees, but possibly women more than men. I hear the screams of protest, but think. Unlike many of the other species on this planet, it is the female human who most often displays color and plumage to attract suitors. It wasn’t always that way. Men wore makeup, wigs and high heels first, but over the last few hundred years, in this society at least, the gals have blown the guys out of the water! And these same marvelous creatures, these same wonderful women, dressed to the nines, made up fit to kill, tucked and plucked, surged and purged, complain bitterly if the wrong man leers, weep if they gain two pounds, and scrabble until their French manicured nails break trying to hold on to youth, a complete and total impossibility.
And men, don’t think for one minute that we’re off the hook. Many of us deplore age in women, turning instead to ending longtime relationships in favor of trophy wives, or pursue arm charm and eye candy, lying to and cheating on someone else while stealing from ourselves, in the vain belief that associating with attractive youth will keep us young and attractive, too. We, men and women, tend to focus on the perishable and neglect the substantial. Age is ugly. Youth is beautiful. And, as we all know, youth is slim, firm, and taught. It is also temporary. But, for only the giving of money and the acceptance of pain, we can reshape, rebuild, restore, remodel and, hopefully, reclaim lost youth with the pinch of a needle, the slash of a scalpel, and the denial of the inevitable. 

Speaking of the denial of the inevitable, regard Suzanne Somers. Some of her personal history is horrible. She is a survivor, no doubt about that. She is also a caricature of her former self. Like someone who keeps adding chrome and accessories to a motorcycle until the madness of accomplishment takes over and the motorcycle itself can no longer even be seen, she has so disfigured herself with surgery and stem cells as to look nearly like something from the Muppets Take Manhattan. I don’t know if this aliment has a name, but I find it sad. Sadder still, any of us run the risk of catching it.

My wife of over forty years, the coveted Laura, was a model when I met her. An attractive girl with a pretty face and a lovely figure, mindful of a young Shirley MacLaine. She’d been the whole route, from duct tape in strategic places to the eternal smile that comes from applying Vaseline to one’s teeth before hitting the runway, thought it ridiculous and, with at least ten years of easy work and good money ahead of her, she quit.

She and I were watching the tube the other evening when a makeup commercial came on, a lovely young face with pouting lips and gleaming eyes, extorting how marvelous the product was in a seductive whisper.

            “Fourteen,” Laura said.

            I responded with the typical male reply. “Huh?”

            “Fourteen,” she repeated. “Maybe younger.”


            “All you have to do is make up little kids to look older and it drives the older women nuts. They pay through the nose trying to look like their daughters. It was starting when I was in the business. Just makes you sick, doesn’t it?”

            It makes a lot of us sick. It makes some of us dead. Anorexia and bulimia are not the problem. They are merely a couple of the symptoms. It comes back to societal focus. We actually believe that something outside ourselves is responsible for our happiness. Oh, to be one size smaller, or one decade younger. God, just to have bigger boobs or a smaller butt, or a larger home, or a younger wife or a fancier car, or dozens of other things that are outside us that we’re convinced will make inside us all better.

Of course, I’m not saying we should neglect our bodies, we shouldn’t. We have to live in them. Nor do I think that cosmetic surgery is completely wrong. That is simply not true. But, if you believe that clothes make the man or woman, you are what you drive, young is good and old is bad, or that your body is really who and what you are, if you can still think independently at all, perhaps you should consider re-thinking things a bit. There is one particular hazard that affects all of us, I’m afraid. While I do not believe that the devil necessarily wears Prada, I do believe that the fashion fire-lover is out there, watching, waiting to pounce. Any of us are available to his wiles. Should you encounter old scratch while walking down the street, do not issue that immortal phrase, “Devil! Get thee behind me!” Sorry. Those jeans really do make your ass look big.

After I watched the snippet of the fashion show that started all this excess verbiage, the regular program returned to the TV. A talk show of some variety. The current guest was the lovely Keira Knightly. Beautiful girl, funny, sweet, poised, popular. Keira, my very dear, if not for your sake, then for ours, EAT A SANDWICH!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Those Less Fortunate

I never saw him wearing anything except a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and the ubiquotus boy’s footwear of the time, black and white Keds tennis shoes. He was a year or so older than I, but pale and smaller, with a shock of floppy blond hair. He lived with parents I never met down the river road a bit closer to the Sangamon than my house. He didn’t go to school either, a wondrous achievement in my nine-year-old estimation, not having to deal with the boredom, peer pressure and politics of grade three.

I first saw him as he came walking up the road past my house, as I was in the yard struggling to realign the handlebars of my Huffy heavyweight, knocked out of shape by a minor crash into the ditch in front of Randy Clinton’s house as I attempted to avoid running over his mother’s yappy little dog. He, the boy, not the dog, stood in the road and watched my labor for a moment. I said, “Hi, Kid,” and he smiled and came closer. I never even knew his name, but I did realize that he was different. Kid was not like the rest of us.

He didn’t talk much, but he smiled a lot. And he hung around, but not like Danny Kobel’s demanding little brother, Mud. Kid was not intrusive. If anything, I found him to be an inducer of contentment. He spent most of the afternoon watching me fix the handlebars and then the fender, asking no questions, saying little, but smiling as if observing the feeble reconstruction of the front end of my Huffy was more than just a way to pass the time, but something both fascinating and uplifting. When I asked him what he did instead of going to school he said, “Sometimes I set, sometimes I mess around. I got a pogo stick.” We parted company near dusk, Kid walking away down River Road into the deepening gloom.

The next day was a school day, and when I arrived home I found him propped up against the big Elm tree on the edge of my front yard. We sat and leaned against it for over an hour, talking a little and enjoying Spring during a time when sitting outside in the grass did not bring worries of ticks, stained clothing, or dangerous passers-by. Upon questioning, he confessed to me that his father worked and his mom “done the dishes.” He had no brothers and sisters and had moved to my hometown from another small metropolis called Farmer City. He was never around on weekends, but for the balance of spring, unless it was raining, when I’d come home from school Kid would be waiting.

During summer, when I wasn’t occupied with the other members of my little group of river rats and small town troublemakers or doing farm work, sometimes Kid would go fishing with me. My grandfather had spent considerable time and effort teaching me the art of bank fishing with cane poles, the necessity of quiet, and the value of patience. I was good at it. On our first venture to the river, Kid confessed he’d never gone fishing. I was astounded. Everybody had gone fishing. Everybody I knew fished. But not Kid. On our walk, I explained the rules. Don’t stomp up and down the bank. No loud talking. Don’t throw anything in the water. Sit still, watch your line or your bobber, shut up, and wait. He blew me away. His patience and ability to not only be still, but to sit absolutely motionless, was amazing. The only giveaway he was even conscious was that smile.

He was not perfect, however. He could never manage to put night crawlers on the hook without sticking his thumb, and he couldn’t see the line well enough to deadline fish for channel cats. But he had the self-control it took to watch a bobber dance sideways against the current and disappear into the muddy depths without panicking and attempting to set the hook too soon. He understood that he could not help carry the cane poles because they were my grandfather’s, and if one got hit against a tree and the tip broken off, it was an eighty-mile round trip to replace the type of cane pole he favored. An eighty-mile trek in a 1949 Plymouth was not a journey to be taken lightly. I did, however, allow him to carry the carefully prepared doughball and the diligently collected worms. The first fish he caught with me, the first one he ever caught for that matter, was about a ten-pound carp, shining golden in the sun on a line suspended from a twelve-foot cane pole…a feat requiring considerable will and strength. He got it done, tackling the carp as it flopped around in the weeds on the bank and, with instruction, even got the limp piece of clothesline I used as a stringer through the gill and mouth of the fish and tied it off on a tree root at the waterline. Had I made such a catch, vocal celebration would have been inevitable, but not Kid. Just that smile.

 That autumn, a week or two from Halloween, he was gone. No Kid waiting under the big Elm anymore. I learned later that his family had just moved away. He and I had never cut corn out of beans together, never ridden bikes or played baseball with each other, never fired .22’s, exchanged secrets, ridden horses, smoked stolen cigarettes, or a dozen other things that my brat-pack and I had done. I can’t even say we were really friends, but I missed him. My grandfather, who appreciated children as much as any adult I have ever known, spoke of him once.
            “Aw, he warn’t quite right, David,” he said. “But I believe he was a fine boy.”

I hadn’t thought of Kid in fifty years, I suppose, until the other day a television show brought him to mind. My granddad was correct. He wasn’t quite right. He was slow, didn’t go to school, and all that, but it strikes me now that education, income, acquisitions, and achievement cannot bring any of us what Kid just naturally had. Peace. I knew it then, even if I didn’t realize it. It was right there in that smile.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013



Kill the Bass Drummer

I want to start this piece by saying that I have a great deal of respect for those men and women who have served, or are serving our country in the military. My grandfather fought in France and Germany during World War 1, my father on Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal in World War Two. My wife, the coveted Laura, recently spent over four years in Afghanistan. I, myself, spent a full day and a half in the United States Air Force. I certainly appreciate those who have given even more than their lives, who have had their minds disrupted, deleted, or even destroyed because of the horrors of war.

At age fourteen, I took employment as bass clarinetist with the Elk’s Band, a group of fine concert musicians who played in various locations around central Illinois and west central Indiana. Our repertoire consisted of classical pieces, the occasional show tune, and patriotic numbers by John Phillip Sousa and his ilk. One fine Sunday all forty-two of us climbed aboard the bus and headed for Danville, Illinois, to play a concert at the VA hospital. The director rose to his feet as we neared our destination, and cautioned us about the upcoming venue.

“We’ll park at the back of the auditorium,” he said. “Go directly inside. Do not look around, do not leave the group, do not talk with any of the inmates.”

Inmates?” I thought.

“I’ll pass out playlist when we get set up. The program will be very docile. When its over, pack up and get back on the bus as soon as possible. If there is any trouble, stay together. There’s safety in numbers.”

Safety in numbers?” I wondered.

I was sitting next to the bassoonist, long a member of the band, who explained that this particular Veteran’s hospital housed men who had, for whatever reason, lost their mental stability while in the service of their country. The Elk’s band had not played there in over eight years. The last time they had played there the director had called for some Sousa after his first two rather placid selections failed to elicit applause from the five or six hundred onlookers. When Stars and Stripes Forever lumbered into the section where the trombones come on strong descending down the scale, an overly excited worthy in the fifth or sixth row, moved by the stirring performance, leapt to his feet.

“Kill the bass drummer!” he shouted, and charged the stage.

A large number of his compatriots, equally moved by the music, buoyed by his fearless assault on superior numbers, took up the cause and joined in the rush. Cries of “Over the top, boys!” and “You wanna live forever?” filled the air. Dozens of veterans of the first and second world wars and Korea, attacked the musicians. The band, with most of their clothes, some of their instruments, and none of their dignity in tact, made it out the back door to the waiting bus. Injuries were minor, but the band refused to come back for eight years.

We played the concert. An hour and twenty minutes of things like “Sheep May Safely Graze and Pasture,” a truly boring experience. The audience never moved or reacted in any way. Back on the bus and out of danger, a Dixieland jam broke out, and we boogied all the way home.

Four years later a college professor I had a huge amount of respect for told me he believed it was in my best interest to leave higher education before I learned how not to think. I took him at his word and dropped out of college. Certain members of my family took exception to my escape, and pressured me heavily to return to the halls of higher learning as soon as possible. I enlisted in Danville Junior College. The year before, Danville Junior College had installed its campus on the grounds of the same Veteran’s hospital where sheep could safely graze and pasture. So could the students, the college propaganda said. The more troublesome inmates of the institution (veteran, not student) had either died off, or had been transferred to other locations. The population was down to about eight hundred patients, only outnumbering the seekers of education by about twenty percent.

I went to Danville Junior College for a while, passing through the large iron gate, locked and heavily guarded after sundown, off limits to the vets during the day, moving through the depressing stone buildings, going to class with students who felt and sometimes acted, like prisoners. It was not a happy place. A friend there, Jerry Bailey, decided once that since the mental patients out numbered the rest of us, if majority rule was in effect, we were the ones who were insane the minute we stepped on campus. As time went on, I became convinced he was right.

One afternoon, Bailey, me, and two other misfits were walking down the long sweeping drive to the front gate, two abreast, and just naturally fell into step. Down the road we marched for nearly a quarter mile. When we reached the gate and stopped, we noticed nearly a hundred of the vets were right behind us, in a column of twos. They also had fallen into step, increasing in numbers as they followed us to the street. There was no guard, the gate was open, freedom beckoned. Three of us freaked. Bailey, some years my senior and a Viet Nam veteran, remained calm. He looked over the column quietly.

“Ten-hut!” he shouted. They snapped to.

“Ha-bout hace!” They turned.

“Howard-harch! Yo lef, yo lef!” The entire assemblage marched away, back up the drive.

Bailey looked at me. “Rank tells,” he grinned. “I was a corporal!”

On that day, in that place, with that company, the boy was a full-bird Colonel.

Monday, January 14, 2013


No Patience With Patients
            He bit his lower lip in pain and stared at me with nearly hate-filled eyes. His assistant, not quite hiding her amusement, handed him a wet towel to soak up some of the blood that ran from his forearm.
            “Looks like ten to fourteen stitches to me,” she said, barely controlling her grin. “You probably ought to sit down. You look a little pale. I’ll sew it up when your blood pressure stabilizes.”

            Jessica crouched on the stainless steel table and purred.

            Jessica was my cat, a bobcat to be exact. She was about six months old, and I had brought her to the veterinarian’s office for routine shots. Bobcats need them, just as housecats do. The veterinarian was Delmar Dawe. Well, that’s not exactly right. At best, Delmar was a vetinary. Primarily a large animal vet, Delmar also had an office for his small animal practice just off the highway in almost-Arkansas, Missouri. He wasn’t much of a vet, but he was the only game in town. He was the only game for over thirty miles in any direction, and he was an authority on handling all kinds of animals. He’d tell you so.

            When I’d arrived at his office, the receptionist/assistant, a lovely young woman named Etta, was fascinated by the bobcat. She cooed and petted, stroked and purred at Jessica, and Jess returned the attention, a real hound for affection. Delmar was unimpressed at dealing with a bobcat. “A cat’s a cat,” he said, as he prepared the shot.
           “Etta, I’ll stretch her, you give her the injection.”
            I spoke up, mentioning the possibility of a squeeze cage, trying to impress Delmar with the fact that bobcats, even half-grown ones, were wild animals, capable of extreme feats in time of stress. He ignored my advice, grabbed Jessica by the fur on top her butt, and the hair behind her head, and pulled her out to her full length. She rotated inside her skin, sunk her fangs three quarters of an inch into his left wrist, and opened up two six-inch tears in Delmar’s right forearm with her rear claws. He screamed and released her. She crouched, eyeing him coldly while she waiting for his next move.

            Bobcats one, Delmar nothing. 

            Delmar came to the ranch on one occasion to float the wolf-teeth on a four year-old gelding. Floating wolf-teeth is a brutal procedure that requires using a wood rasp to file down a set of teeth to keep them from interfering with the bit when it is in a horse’s mouth. Horses are bigger than most of us and are prone to resists this treatment. To maintain control, a “twitch” is used. A twitch is a two-foot length of quarter-inch nylon rope secured to the end of an eighteen-inch dowel. The rope is slipped over the horse’s upper lip, the stick is spun, tightening the loop of line about a bulge of muzzle, and the horse is thus restrained, while the vet reaches into his mouth, and files down, or knocks out, the teeth in question.

            Observing Delmar casually perform the application of the twitch one afternoon, I watched as he forgot to remain at arm’s length during the procedure. The horse found the twitch to be unpleasant, threw is head violently upward jerking the dowel from Delmar’s grasp, causing it to strike him briskly on the nose. The crack of the blow could be heard throughout the barn, leaving Delmar sitting in the hay attempting to staunch significant blood flow from his broken beak.

            Horses one, Delmar zip. 

            Then there was the good-natured German shepherd who became so outraged at Delmar’s cavalier insertion of a rectal thermometer that he whirled on the table and delivered a massive bite to Delmar’s left wrist. Delmar suffered no injury from the attack, but his brand-new Rolex wristwatch, in spite of its three thousand dollar price tag and its solid stainless steel case, could not resist the crunch of the doggy’s massive jaws. As Delmar sat holding pieces of the watch in his hand, Etta had to leave the room to laugh. Jobs were scarce in almost-Arkansas, Missouri.

            German shepherds one, Delmar zilch. 

            A five hundred pound Charolais heifer is one of the waspiest animals on the planet. They have the speed of a leopard, the kick of an ostrich, and the mind-set of an L. A. Banger. We had fifty-six of them to vaccinate and called Delmar. The heifers, penned in a small corral, were driven down a chute and into a headgate for treatment. Delmar became dissatisfied with the way we were handling the cattle and jumped into the pen to show us how it should be done. He rapidly approached the nearest heifer, who lashed out with the speed of a striking snake and kicked him squarely in the crotch. The poor man folded like a pair of deuces into the muck at the bottom of the pen amid raucous laughter from all of us on hand. I took compassion on him and led the bent and broken man from the corral and eased him to the ground.

            Heifers one, Delmar nada. 
            He sipped from a cup of water I brought him and regarded me through bloodshot eyes.
            “Ya know,” he winced, “I was gonna be a doctor for a while. A human doctor.”
            “Why didn’t you?” I asked.
            “Aw, hell,” he grunted. “I just can’t stand people. I really like animals, though.”

            Humans one, Delmar. . .well, you get the drift.



Thursday, January 3, 2013


Day of the Dummy
I have spent some time of my life on top of horses. Current aches and pains would indicate too much time, but I wouldn’t change anything. In the late 1970’s I made my living now and then on horseback, working on ranches in terrain too extreme for gasoline powered vehicles. To “cowboy” is a romantic dream that reads significantly better than it lives. Twenty dollars and two meals for a fourteen-hour day, while using horses owned by the cattle company, isn’t the easiest way to make a paycheck.

Stock horses are a mixed bunch, the best of which are usually snapped up by the full-time hands for semi-permanent use. The dregs are used by the “day hands,” misguided fools like me hired as needed for roundups, calving season, and the like. The selection of horses inflicted on us constituted a mixed bag of quirks and bad habits.

Dottie was a small chestnut mare of easy temperament and generally good attitude. From time to time, however, Dottie’s tiny mind would compel her to walk into an available stock pond and lie down. Her rider’s protests and efforts to the contrary would go unheeded, leaving the cowboy soaked to the skin in drenched clothing and water-filled boots. This was an unpleasant experience, especially shortly after dawn on a forty-five degree March morning. (Dottie’s motivation remains unclear.)

Curly was a wise bay gelding with quick feet and good cow sense who stood quietly when mounted, never threatened violence, and did not bite at knees or buck. Curley’s specialty was to wait until his rider was most vulnerable. At the moment the cowboy was lulled into a false sense of security - arms behind his back while removing a jacket that had become too hot for the day, or reins slack while he was absorbed in rolling a cigarette - Curly would dart to one side of the trail or the other, with the speed of a mother-in-law’s tongue, and leave the rider sitting atop five feet of nothing but his aspirations. The resulting crash was humiliating, but Curley was not without compassion. Once the deed was done, he would not repeat it for the balance of the day.

Then, there was Cloud. Cloud was a leopard Appaloosa of a little over sixteen hands and nearly twelve hundred pounds. Snow white and covered with a plethora of dark blue silver dollar sized spots, Cloud was beautiful. Cloud was Majestic. Cloud was slow. Cloud was dumb. The briefest glance his way convinced the novice observer that this was a wonderful steed. Five minutes on his back gave the exact opposite impression.

One cool morning, he and I went bushwacking, searching for calves in hard to reach places. The sky was totally clear. Post oaks and cedars whispered in the tingling breeze as a distant hawk or buzzard poised artfully against the blue for best effect. But I had little time to enjoy such things. I was riding Cloud. Left to his devices, Cloud would wander off the trail or stumble over his own feet or walk under a low-hanging limb or just stop. He had no evil intent. There was not a nasty bone in his huge body. He was merely unsuited for this reality and paid almost no attention to it. A horse that is unaware of his surroundings is maddening to his rider and a danger to both of them. When aboard Cloud, I could never relax. I tried to keep my mind in the middle and protect both of us.

I was riding along the rim of a rocky gulch, rocks that Cloud stumbled over from time to time, when I noticed a splash of black among the stones about forty feet down the steep slope. I got down among scattered prickly pear and new polk salad to investigate. When I dropped the reins, Cloud was instantly ground-tied, sinking deeply into his own horsey thoughts, as far away from the mundane world as possible. Clattering down the steep slope I encountered a calf, a two-day old indigo bundle of cute. I wrapped him around my neck, holding his feet in both hands, and struggled back up the slope on an easier route, emerging at the top of the draw about sixty feet from where Cloud stood in deep meditation. I eased the little calf to the ground and was admiring him when his mommy, a thousand pounds of outraged motherhood, came boiling out of the brush, bawling straight for me.

I was in big trouble. Standing on that lacerated and rocky ground wearing cowboy boots, I was about as mobile as an inverted turtle. The best I could hope for was that the end would come quickly. The cow, sporting four-point independent suspension on a variable wheelbase and driven by one full cowpower of motherly love, had me totally at her mercy. There were no trees to climb, and no big boulders to dive behind. I was without defense. She charged. When she was less than fifteen feet away, wonder of wonders, Cloud blew by me and slammed into her. Momma fell flat, and he to his knees. When the cow lurched back to her feet, that marvelous horse stayed between she and I, squealing and biting until I could move away from the calf and clamber into the saddle. As she turned her attention to Junior, Cloud and I retreated to the tree line and watched their tearful reunion.

I was astounded! For one brief and shining moment, Cloud, that equine monument to “Duh,” had soared so high above his usual shortcomings as to render them insignificant. The same horse that could not be depended on to do anything even remotely correctly, had saved me from serious injury, possibly death, and he had done it with style. I never told any of the other hands about Cloud’s accomplishment, for I would not have been believed, but from that moment on I used that stumble-footed steed as often as I could. I found myself more tolerant of his shortcomings. Even months later as he and I tripped and slipped along the trails, Cloud, for all his bumbling ineptitude, was still my favorite. Not for what he was, but for what I knew he could be.