Friday, September 29, 2017

Calling to Catch Up

I called my aunt just to say hello and catch up. We talked about the weather and then about my 102 year old great aunt not-so-shockingly being in the hospital again and then about my uncle preparing for the unfortunate colonoscopy he's having tomorrow - and if you have had one, you understand "preparing." These are all common topics when talking to my family back home in rural South Georgia. 

After the updates, she asked what I was doing. I told her I was in a 4 day, all day writing workshop, so not much detail to report. When I asked what else was new before hanging up the phone, and she casually said "well, you know, I called your Mama yesterday." (This was unusual bcs they generally don't talk just for nothing - these two need to actually have something practical to do, to organize or to answer or else they just visit in person. Yesterday was an answer problem.) 

"I just wanted to know where Scott's leg is buried." 

"Unh-huh," was all I could muster.

(Scott is my uncle - she said so without the "uncle" part bcs he's the youngest of 9 and as the oldest of 34 grandchildren "Uncle Scott" and I are only 3 or 4 years apart.)

I gathered myself. "What do you mean: where is his leg buried? They buried it? And, is he looking for it? I ..."

 She stopped me. "Yes, they buried his leg, and no, he's not looking for it. I am. When Daddy died, there were all these confusions about burial plots. Uncle AT's plot was four but because he died so early, they just moved him over there with Muddy Bess, and then when Uncle Randy died, they moved him out of his plots bcs nobody else had died and they didn't want to disturb that area." 

"Ok - but what does that have to do with Scott's leg?" I asked.

"Well, I only have so many spaces left for the family. Kate wanted to make sure there was space for her family." 

"She's 28." I protested. 

"I get that, AND, somebody's got to plan for where to fit everybody." 

"Well I"m being cremated." 

"Yes, I know, and so are Uncle Murray and I - but we still want a marker, and I want you to have one if you want it." 

"So, you want to know... wait, what's this got to do with Scott?" I asked again.

"I'd heard Rooster buried the leg, but nobody would confirm it much less tell me where it was... It turns out your Mama and Uncle Jim knew Rooster had it buried, but neither of them knows WHERE she buried it - only that it was in the allotted family acreage." 

"Ok, so what are you gonna do?"

"The preacher is going by to pick up the old retired care taker and bring him around - gonna see if he might remember where it is. We figure he's the most likely one to have done the actual burying." Aunt Deanie answered - almost exasperated - as if this were the only and perfectly logical solution.

"So she just stuck it in the ground - like planting a seed or something? No ceremony? No marker? Nothing?"

"I guess not. I just don't want to bury somebody on top of it - or worse have it appear in the dirt pile at a graveside service."


"Ok. Well, I'm gonna finish up lunch for Uncle Murray. We love you!"

"I love y'all. Bye, Aunt Deanie."

It was just a regular, normal, routine call to catch up...

Roping the bear

While working as a wrangler on a 137,000 acre Northern New Mexico ranch (you know, the typical I-don’t-know-what-in-the-hell-to-do-with-my-life phase) my first ranch station was at Clark’s Fork where it was me and four boys in a barn. We took care of the 30+ head of horses there in addition to whatever cattle was there at the time. (Cattle were moved from pasture to pasture throughout the ranch much more often than the horses or burros.) We also repaired fences, did minor veterinary procedures, re-shod horses when needed and even gave dude rides to backpacking and/or camping groups in the area – almost always Boy Scout Troops.

This area of New Mexico was flush with Black Bears. Occasionally we’d have to scare one away from trying to break into our grain bin or reroute a job through the woods, but really the bears mostly wanted to avoid us. A sentiment we wranglers shared with the bears although over the years the bears had gotten more and more comfortable with human "things."

One lazy, sunny day in June, though, the boys changed their minds. We were all cleaning tack or whittling or grooming our personal horses in front of the barn when a bear neared one of our corrals which fortunately were empty since it was late afternoon – being in the middle of frightened, trapped horses has always been a bad plan.

I reckon that bear had gotten into the boys’ whiskey stash in the creek bed. The bear stunk and the whiskey bottle was all busted to pieces. The boys and their collective thinking… all it took was for one of them to turn off their brain, and the others jumped on the absurd idea of “roping the bear.”

“I’m gonna get that bear,” Mike said.

“Yeh!” “Yeah – let’s get him!” The other boys all pitched in various shouts of support. Before I knew it, all four of ‘em had mounted up and were chasing that bear. Even in the thick woods, the brainless boys were swirling their lassos overhead.

Calmly, methodically, I mounted my horse Questa, the fastest mustang (wild horse) in New Mexico. Questa and I caught up to the boys easily. They had surrounded a very angry 6+ foot tall… 200+ pound… Black… Bear.

As the bear roared to standing full height and arms stretched out, Questa and I eased up behind a couple of the guys and said, “Boys… I’ve just got one question for y’all.”

“What?” “We’re busy!” “We got him!” These were the responses shouted in my direction.

“Well,” I said. “What exactly do y’all plan to do with that big ol’ angry bear once y’all rope it?”


Then the lassos began to go limp, and the bear went back to all fours as the boys withdrew their horses. As they cleared out from around it, the bear slowly and cautiously headed back into the forest. We, too, turned around and slowly made our way back to the barn in silence – that is, until the last clearing before the barn. That's when I heard Big Mike mutter, "Well, I coulda had him."

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Football and French Teachers

     Due to tight budgets, high schoolers across America are subjected to athletic coaches being distributed amongst the real teachers. Often, these coaches end up “teaching” easy and/or undesirable subjects like social studies - or in the case of the Anglo-centric South, foreign languages. One of my favorite high school memories is of a particular day in French class. I don’t know what possessed me to take French over Spanish, but that’s what I did - probably the most interesting thing about this class was that it was taught by the head football coach.
     Coach Lowe was a very typical coach-teacher: Mondays were spent analyzing our team’s successes or failures the previous Friday night; Tuesday through Thursday was handled by distributing worksheets to be completed open-book style in class; and Friday was blown off entirely in anticipation of that night’s game. We also had some Tuesdays off – sometimes for our school-wide assemblies and sometimes because the Coach had to go to his Rotary Club meeting.
     One day, though, Coach Lowe decided to take a rare spin around the blackboard – planning, in fact, to actually teach a little French. Before entering the classroom he was distracted by some assistant coach in the hallway, and we wisely used this time to write all over the board and then throw the erasers into the prickly bushes outside the classroom. Returning to the class he quickly discovered the problem and went out to procure an eraser. By the time he came back, we had also disposed of all the writing instruments for the board. Quite confused but not yet defeated, he left again to remedy the situation. Feeling the need to ramp up the disturbance, we began removing desks and chairs from the classroom and hiding them along the outer wall of the school. This time when he returned, we had students with no seats for his eagerly anticipated teaching lesson. Frustrated, he grabbed a handful of his football players (oh, yes, excellent French students – no coincidence they were in the coach’s class) to obtain desks from an unoccupied classroom. Miraculously, when the new desks were brought in, we were still short about the same number of desks. Baffled, the entourage went on a second mission to transfer desks into our classroom only to discover the same shortage on their return. Now at this point, the Coach realized two things: 1) there were only 8 minutes of class remaining and 2) the previous teacher had really left that classroom a mess and needed a stern talking-to.

     To the uninitiated, there’s just no adequate way to describe a Southerner’s obsession with the sport of football. For so many of us, it is the first sport we learn – probably tossing a football before throwing a baseball. It’s the way of life.
     The entire year revolves around football: in the spring, we gather players and formulate strategies for the available personnel. In the summer we begin our grueling two-a-day workouts leading up to the start of the season. Joyously we know that fall has arrived because football is being played. We pore over statistics and injuries and records and opponents. We faithfully attend every game we possibly can and watch those we can’t. Birthdays, anniversaries even funerals must be planned around the football schedule. When the all mighty farm gods require we harvest during the football season, all attempts are made to break for the game, and if that is impossible, we play that home-team, Larry-Munson-style radio broadcast while on the tractor or combine. As winter arrives, we rabidly root for the highest prize possible – that state championship, the national championship, the super bowl championship. If by some cruel misfortune our home team is out of the mix, we diligently play basketball and baseball and track through winter and spring to keep us in shape for football season. We will continue year round to analyze our school, your school, the rules, the system, the possibilities…
     During the football season, every day of the week revolves around football. On Monday we are discussing the results of the weekend and if players, sharpening our skill for next weekend. On Tuesday we are evaluating where we stand and where our college and professional teams stand. On Wednesday as we continue to prepare – judging the weekend’s matchups to either play or cheer or adjust our fantasy picks – we are looking ever more closely at our opponents’ tactics. Thursday puts the finishing touches on all our adjustments for the upcoming game(s). Friday is game day in our hometowns. With no movie theaters or dance clubs to compete with, our rural communities attend the Friday Night Lights as if that game was the resurrection of Jesus Himself. By Saturday we are caravanning to our college game where 100,000 other die-hard fans cram with us into our massive Southern football stadiums in support of our team. Sundays we are glued to our televisions rooting for all those homegrown heroes who made it to the big leagues, and when Monday comes around…  we do it all over again.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Three Wise Men

        After college I took a temporary job as a wrangler on a 137,000 acre ranch in northern New Mexico. My first duty station was in a remote location – It was me and five boys in a barn. We had no electricity and no running water – just an outhouse and a rainwater shower.
On occasion, we would ride our horses bareback down to the little road to the little town (population: 800) and leave them in the little field while we went to the saloon. Nestled in the historic St James Hotel, there was an old saloon where the likes of Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, Jesse James and Black Jack Ketchum rested their heads – and shot up the ceiling in a few places. It was a great treat to go to town since we had no real entertainment out there in the woods – just us, thirty to fifty horses and some cattle.
Once we got to the lower field, we took the reins off our horses, threw ‘em over our shoulders and set out on foot. We were all dressed pretty much the same in short-sleeved button-down shirts, blue jeans and cowboy boots – plus or minus chaps. This was standard wear in Cimarron, and we fit in seamlessly as we strolled the half a mile or so to the hotel where it sat – and still sits – on the edge of town. There we’d spend a couple of hours imbibing, playing pool and telling tales.
The very first time we entered the saloon, I pulled the bartender aside. She was a skinny thing, probably in her thirties. She was definitely a local – knowing her way around those parts and around all those cowboys, too.
“Ma'am, you see those boys?” She glanced over at the boys – all Texans – and nodded her head. “I’m out at camp with them.” I stopped there and looked at her. She met my eyes. “Me. And them.”
Her eyes got wider. “You’re the only girl? Out there with all those guys?”
“That’s right.” I answered.
“Sounds dangerous.”
“They’re a good bunch of boys – protective of me, actually. However… I do not intend to get intoxicated and return to a barn full of boys.”
“I see.” She said.
“Here’s a contribution to your tip fund.” I handed her a twenty dollar bill. “I’d appreciate it if you’d help me out.”
She took the money from me and said, “Darlin’, don’t you worry about a thing.”
From then on we had a regular agreement. Whenever she came around to collect empty beer bottles and bring another round to our rowdy crew, she picked up my full beer and gave me a new one. Whenever the boys ordered shots, she gave me a virgin one.
Occasionally, one of the boys was chatting her up, and she had to give me a liquor shot with the boys. They were most fond of ordering “The Three Wise Men” – Jack, Jim, and Jose. I wanted no part of those wise men, thank you very much. The bartender would give me a little sign or just stare at me really hard when she’d had to pour me a real one. Then, when we made our toast, I’d lift my drink and throw my head back just like the boys – only I’d throw my shot over my shoulder and onto the floor. Usually they were too drunk to notice, and the bartender just discreetly cleaned it up as we moved back over to pool table and our bar stools. On the off chance they did notice, we’d all just laugh it up that I was too drunk and had missed my mouth.
After the boys got good and sloshed, we’d headed back up the road – the distance not long enough to sober ‘em up before we reached the horses. This field, while smaller than most we had, was still an acre or two. We had to catch our horses in there. Generally, my palomino gelding Questa was usually fairly easy to catch – not easy to ride as he had a tendency to buck off riders he didn’t like. So, most nights I was sitting astride Questa before the boys had caught their horses.
Oh the scene of four or five boys weaving around drunk trying to catch a horse. Even worse was when one of ‘em tried to mount up. Sober as a saint, I’d watch as one managed his way up only to fall off on the other side or see one get halfway up only for the horse to run out from underneath him. Now that was entertainment.
Eventually, we would all be ready. Then we would ride the half hour or so in the dark back to the barn. The boys would pass out in their cots as I settled down in mine behind the particle board partition, snuggling in for dreams of five drunken cowboys and three wise men.