Monthly Archives: November 2013

A Civil War Christmas

Mary Louise could hardly contain herself as she sat by candlelight, sitting as still as a child on Christmas Eve could sit while her mother brushed out her hair. It was the middle of the Civil War and their plantation home in South Carolina was in ruins, but Mary Louise just knew Santa Claus would answer the letter she wrote.
“Now, don’t you go wishin’ for the moon, young lady,” her mother lectured her as she began to tie pink ribbons in Mary Louise’s brown hair, making two, perfectly divided pigtails.
“But if Santy got my letter….”
“I didn’t send Santy’s letter,” her mother said abruptly. “He couldn’t run the blockade anyway if I had sent the letter.” She finished tying the second ribbon. “Blame the Yankees if you don’t get no Christmas this year. It’s their fault.”
Mary Louise knew not to argue with her mother when she got into one of those moods, and she seemed to be in one of those moods all the time recently. After her mother left the bedroom, she scrambled to her desk and pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil and proceeded to write the very same letter over to Santa Claus. She had but one wish.
“Please, Santy, let me see my daddy one more time.”
Folding the letter neatly, Mary Louise went to the window, opened it and tossed it out in the cold night air. Her mother always told her Santa Claus was magical so she knew her letter would reach him on the winter wind of Christmas Eve. Content she had done all she could do to ensure a merry Christmas, Mary Louise closed the window and ran to her bed where she buried deep underneath the many layers of down-filled quilts. No time had passed since she closed her eyes, it seemed, when she felt a cold blast, a gentle ho ho ho and the familiar baritone chuckle of her father.
“Daddy! Santy!” Mary Louise whispered excitedly.
Jumping from bed she ran to give her father a big hug. She knew it had to be her father because no one could hug as well as he did. She sniffed. Yes, it was the smell of his sweat and a slight hint of his favorite Cuban tobacco. But Mary Louise detected another scent, unfamiliar, acrid, almost taking her breath away.
“I can’t stay long, darlin’,” her father said. He pulled her away. “Let me look at you. You’ve grown an inch since I last seen you. And still got that purty smile.” He hugged her again. “Always keep that purty smile, darlin’.”
“Oh, Daddy, I just have to give you a Christmas present!” She turned to Santa Claus. “Isn’t that right, Santy?”
“Yes, Mary Louise, that’s right,” Santa replied.
“And I know just what to give!” Mary Louise stuck out her hand. “Give me your tobacco pouch, Daddy.”
Her father pulled a leather pouch from his tattered, soiled gray trousers and handed it to her. Mary Louise ran downstairs to the parlor and opened a drawer in a large old desk. She gently lifted the lid off a humidor and carefully scooped out the last of the fragrant Cuban tobacco into her father’s pouch. She quickly returned and proudly presented it to him.
“It’s the last, Daddy. I knew you would want it.”
“That’s mighty kind of you darlin’. I’ll never forget it.”
“It’s time to leave,” Santa said.
“But I have to give my little darlin’ something.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Mary Louise said in a soft voice, “just you being here is all the Christmas I need.”
She watched her father’s eyes fill with tears as he pushed his long dark hair from his forehead. Her nose crinkled as she noticed his hair had begun to turn just a touch of gray. Mary Louise’s head cocked when he pulled his pocket knife out and opened it.
“I know. This will be from me to you for all the Christmases in your rest of your life.”
The next morning Mary Louise jumped from her bed and flew down the stairs to the kitchen. She felt one side of her neatly parted hair fly free of the pink ribbon, but she did not care. She had to share with her mother the happiness of her visit with her father, all thanks to Santa Claus.
“Oh Mommy, Mommy! It was wonderful last night! He came! He came! Santy came and he brought Daddy with him!”
Her mother looked up from her cup of coffee as she sat at the table. Her hands covered a letter.
“What on earth are you talking about, Mary Louise?”
“After you left me last night, I wrote another letter to Santy and threw it out the window. And he got it. He woke me up with his ho ho ho and when I opened my eyes I saw Daddy!”
“You were dreaming, child.”
“No, I wasn’t dreaming! It was real!”
“That’s foolishness! Now sit down and eat your breakfast.”
“No! I’ll prove it!” Mary Louise ran to the parlor, brought back the humidor to the kitchen table and put it down. “See, all the tobacco is gone.”
“That was the last of your father’s favorite tobacco. Very expensive tobacco from Cuba. What did you do with it?”
“I gave it to Daddy. I put it in his pouch. I wanted him to have it,” Mary Louise said softly.
“You dreadful child! You threw away your father’s tobacco as part of this cruel joke that he was here last night!”
“But it’s not a joke, Mommy. Daddy was really here. Santy brought him.”
“That’s impossible!”
“Why, Mommy?”
She watched her mother sink into the chair, dissolve into tears and hold up the letter on the table.
“Because this letter says the Yankees killed your father at a place in Maryland called Antietam. I got this letter three weeks ago, so there’s no way your father could have been in this house last night! And why would he have come home and not….” Her voice choked. “…and not visited me?”
“Maybe,” Mary Louise whispered, “because you didn’t write a letter to Santy.”
Her mother arose abruptly and shook Mary Louise’s shoulders.
“You terrible child! How can you be so mean to me, especially here at Christmas?” She stopped and reached out to touch the loose strands of hair on the side of Mary Louise’s head. “And you lost one of the ribbons from your hair. Do you know how expensive ribbon is now?”
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“I’m so angry I can’t stand the sight of you! Go to your room and stay there all day!” She stepped away, picked up the letter and folded it. “I shall spend the day in prayer, asking God to give me the strength to forgive you. Perhaps all will be better tomorrow.”
Mary Louise turned and without another word went to her room. There she decided she would never write another letter to Santa Claus again. It was not that she no longer believed in Santa; no, it was because she decided there was no use in asking Santa to give her something if no one believed her when it happened. She pulled out a lock of dark hair streaked with gray tied with a pink ribbon. It was her present from her father. Mary Louise was afraid to show it to her mother because she might throw it away, and Mary Louise wanted to keep it forever.
Her mother forgave her the next morning and gave her extra jam to go on her biscuits. Her mother never celebrated Christmas as long as she lived. This is not to say Mary Louise never had a merry Christmas again. She had a life-long love affair with Christmas, starting with her eighteenth year when she relented and wrote another letter to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, folded it and tossed it out in the winter wind.
“Dear Santy, Since Mommy hates Yankees so much, please bring me a nice Yankee boy to marry.”
On Christmas Day, a school friend, who knew Mary Louise’s mother never celebrated the holiday, invited her over for dinner. In the parlor was a tall, willowy young man with long straight dark hair and soulful eyes.
“Mary Louise, I want you to meet my father’s new assistant, Thomas. He’s from Ohio.”
Mary Louise was impressed with Thomas’s strong but gentle handshake. By that evening they were sitting close to each other by the parlor fireplace. Instinctively she leaned into him and he placed his arm around her shoulder. With her head on his chest she sniffed. His sweat smelled like her father’s. She sniffed again.
“Do you smoke a pipe?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “It’s my only vice. I buy the tobacco from Cuba.”
Mary Louise and Thomas were married by the next Christmas. On Christmas Eve she pulled out the strand of hair tied with the pink ribbon and told him the story of her Civil War visit from her father. She also told him about her letter asking for a nice Yankee boy. He believed her. They had five boys and three girls, each carefully taught to write letters to Santa Claus, fold them neatly and throw them out the window onto the winter wind of Christmas Eve.

A Date for Thanksgiving

You’ll never believe what happened to my wife and me the first Thanksgiving after we got married. She was the mountains of southwestern Virginia and I was from the plains of Texas. I worked for a newspaper in Upper East Tennessee in Kingsport, a nice-sized city on the state line with Virginia, but we were both small town folk so we decided to buy a house in a village called Falls Branch just south of town.
We got the last house on this street that meandered into the foothills. Everyone else on the street was rather swarthy looking and talked funny. Now my wife had told me about this people who lived together way back in the mountains called Melungeons. No one knew where they came from, but they looked Portuguese or Turkish, and they spoke something that sounded like Old English.
“I don’t think they’re Melungeons,” my wife said.
It was the weekend before Thanksgiving, and my wife had agreed to bake my mother’s old recipe for walnut date bread. We were walking out of the store when I showed her the bag of dates.
“Oh, that’s way too many,” she said. “You’ll have to give some of those away.”
Just then one of our neighbors walked up. We hadn’t spoken much.
“Would you like some dates?” I asked. There’s no better way to make friends with the neighbors than to give them food.
He stopped, straightened his shoulders, looked at my hand and then at me.
“Dose dates?”
“Yeah.”
“Youse givin’ me dates?”
“Yeah.”
“Where youse from?”
“Five Points.”
It was a little town named for a rock formation in downtown. The closest city was Lubbock
Our neighbor’s eyes widened. “Youse from Five Points?”
“Yeah.”
“Youse miss de family?”
“Oh sure.”
“Youse good people. Come de our house for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Isn’t that nice, honey? We’re eating with the Melungeons.”
“I don’t think they’re Melungeons,” she whispered.
On Thanksgiving Day we walked across the street with our freshly baked walnut date bread. All of the men in the neighborhood wore black pin-striped suits, black shirts and white ties. All the women wore dresses with plunging necklines revealing perky bosoms.
“I didn’t know Melungeons believed in breast implants.”
“I keep telling you,” my wife said, “these people aren’t Melungeons.”
In the middle of dinner, which strangely had lots of pasta and lasagna and no turkey and dressing, the host turned to me, with his mouth full of ravioli, and said, “Hey, Five Points, what kinda bidness youse in?”
I didn’t want to tell them I sat around all day editing news stories and writing headlines so I thought back to when I was on the police beat.
“Well, I’ve witnessed a lot of crime in my day.”
All the men around the table laughed out loud, blowing bits of marinara sauce on the table cloth.
“Yeah, widnessin’ dat crime can be dangerous.”
Another man with a nasty scar across his check said, “Yeah, den youse uncle had to give youse protection.”
“Yeah, Uncle Sam has given us all a lotta protection,” the host added.
They laughed again, and more marinara sauce splattered everywhere.
“I didn’t know Melungeons had such a good sense of humor,” I whispered to my wife.
“Shut up,” she hissed back.
“Whaddaya call us?” the guy with the scar said.
“I said Muh—“
“Shh,” the host interrupted, putting his finger to his lips. “Don’t use dat word around here.”
“Why? You should be proud of your heritage,” I exclaimed. At that moment I became aware of my wife’s fingernails digging into my thigh. It hurt very much.
“Dat’s what we tink,” the host said, “but Uncle Sam makes de rules.”
“Yeah, he pays all our bills,” the man with the scar said.
“No offense to your Uncle Sam, but I think he’s much too controlling.”
My wife’s nails broke the skin on my thigh, and I clamped my mouth shut to keep from screaming in pain.
“And exactly,” my wife announced in a loud but firm voice, “what exactly did you think was my husband’s intention in giving you a date?”
“Jeez, Mario,” one of the wives spoke up. “She talks with a lotta big fancy words.”
Mario, the guy with the scar, slapped her on the back of the head. “Keep youse pie hole shut.”
I was beginning to think these Melungeons weren’t as nice as my wife made them out to be.
“Liddle lady,” the host said, “back in de old country, when youse give somebody a date it’s like, hey, youse one of us.”
“So you think we’re one of you?” my wife said. Her voice was very tense which wasn’t like her at all. She was usually very relaxed around strangers.
“Why, honey,” I began to reassure her, “we’re no Muh—“
“Youse not a Muh—“
“Oh, I’m a Muh,” my wife said quickly. “He’s not a Muh.”
“You’re a Muh?” I said. “That’s great. I always wanted to be married to the Muh.”
My wife stood and grabbed me by the hand. “Thank you very much for the Thanksgiving dinner. It was lovely, but we’ve got to go now.”
For some reason my wife insisted we sell the house immediately and move to Lubbock. We never saw those nice Melungeons again.

My Dim Memory

Since I was only five years old, my memory of that day is dim and rather muddled.
Happiness, I suppose, crowds out the bad feelings. Mom and Dad both worked. She sold dresses at a big store downtown. She always looked pretty when she left me at the nursery school each morning. She wore bright red lipstick and rouge on her cheeks. When she hugged me good-bye she smelled of roses. I didn’t know what Daddy did at work, mostly sat in an office and talked on the telephone. Later I figured out he sold insurance.
Anyway, on this cloudless, briskly cool day in late November—it was a Friday, I remember now—I didn’t go to the nursery school where I sat on the floor playing with trucks and building blocks. Mommy dressed me in clothes I usually wore to Sunday School. Instead, all three of us climbed into the car and drove downtown, left the car in a big lot and walked several blocks to a park where all these streets came together.
About halfway there, I tugged on Daddy’s sleeve and said I was getting tired walking all that way. He smiled and lifted me to his shoulders, and the rest of the way I was taller than anyone else on the street, and there were a lot of people on the streets that day. Daddy always carried me on his shoulders the very first time I would say I was tired. To the day he died many years later I never admitted to him that I wasn’t really that tired. I just liked being so high above everyone around me. Like I said, happiness.
When we arrived at the park, we saw it was filled with all kinds of people—young, old, white, black, some were dressed nice like us and others had some pretty raggedy shirts and pants. I don’t remember ever going there before. Daddy told me we had driven through the park to get on the big highway many times but I was usually busy playing in the back seat. Looking around I saw one tall brick building with people leaning out of all the windows. There was a big sign on the roof.
“What does that sign say, Daddy?”
“Hertz.”
“That’s a funny name.”
“It’s the name of a car rental company,” Mommy said.
“I don’t know what rental means,” I replied.
Before Daddy or Mommy could explain what rental meant, the crowd started yelling and jumping up and down. I saw a lot of people with cameras. By the time the police on motorcycles began riding by, the noise was so loud I couldn’t hear anything Mommy and Daddy were saying. Even Daddy jumped a little when this one big car with no top slowly turned the corner and began to pass us.
Shots rang out. They sounded like firecrackers. Before I knew it, we were on the ground, and Daddy was on top of me. My first thought was that Mommy was going to be mad because my Sunday School clothes got dirty. Then I started crying. I didn’t know why; maybe because everyone else was crying. I even saw tears on Daddy’s cheeks.
I am now an old man. People always ask me what I remember about being in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza on the day President Kennedy was shot. The only thing I really remember is the happiness I felt being on Daddy’s shoulders. I know they wouldn’t be interested in that. Instead, I tell them, “I saw the nice lady in the car with the pink hat.”

Happiness

Three days after grandma’s funeral, Jeff began the dreary duty of clearing out her house.
Each room was filled with items bought at yard sales. Jeff knew. Every Saturday for the last three years Jeff had driven his grandmother throughout scattered neighborhoods looking for that one special item that would make her life happy. Usually she found at least two or three items at each sale, and they went to as many sales as they could before grandma had to return home for her afternoon nap.
Stacked on the dining room table were wicker baskets of all sizes and shapes, each one bought to store a specific item.
“This one will be perfect for all the mail that comes in each day,” she told him, “and this one over here will be good to put all the bills in before I mail them out.”
She picked up another basket, saying, “I can put my knitting supplies in this one.”
Another basket was shaped like a swan. “I don’t know what I could put in this, but it is so pretty I cannot pass it up.”
Now all the baskets were dusty as they lay one inside the other. A few had dirty dish towels draped over them, towels which his grandmother fussed about not being able to find. On the floor underneath the dining room table were extra dishtowels grandma had bought to replace the ones she thought she lost.
Jeff walked into the spare bedroom where he began to packing boxes porcelain figurines, some of Greek goddesses and some of colonial ladies, all of them slightly faded and chipped. If he closed his eyes he could still hear the joy in her voice as she cooed over her discoveries. He even remembered the twinkle in her eyes and the way her bony fingers danced across the porcelain.
It was not that he begrudged the time he spent taking his grandmother from yard sale to yard sale. She had been kind to him when he was a child, and his parents seem to care more about their careers in retail sales. Both of them went from major store to major store– Sears, Ward’s, JCPenney and many others– working long hours for little appreciation and even less income. But grandma always make sure he had all the attention he wanted or needed.
As his grandmother grew older and needed help getting around, Jeff realized the job would be left up to him because his parents still thought one day they would be rewarded for all their loyal service to the big retail store. So every afternoon after he had spent the day teaching middle school English, Jeff went to his grandmother’s house to see what she needed. Most times she had the local newspaper spread open on the floor could this section about yard sales and was planning her route for the weekend.
Jeff sat on the floor, pen and pad in hand, to take careful notes. After three years he had every neighborhood in town memorized.
“What I really need,” she confided in a whisper, “is a new bathrobe.”
Jeff just smiled and nodded and wrote it down on his pad, even though he knew his mother had given his grandmother a new bathrobe for Christmas which she had bought on sale at Sears.
After he had packed all the porcelain figurines in bubblewrap and placed them in boxes, Jeff walked into his grandmother’s bedroom and began to take down from the closet all the dresses and coats she had picked up for only $.50 or a dollar. He knew the exact prices because many of the clothes still had the price stickers on them.
“What did she think he was buying?” Jeff muttered to himself.
By the weekend, he had all of his grandmother’s possessions organized, priced and ready to go on sale in the front lawn. As usual, he had to do all the work by himself because Saturday was always a busy day for his parents at the store. Besides that, grandma was very specific in her will. All the treasures in her home were left to Jeff to do with as he wished. She knew, as stated in the will, he would benefit greatly financially when he sold. All Jeff really wanted was to make enough money to pay for the classified ad he had placed in the newspaper for the sale.
John Saturday morning Jeff sat in a lawn chair, which still had the sticker on which was written $.50.
First to go were the wicker baskets.
“I don’t know what I’ll do with it,” an old woman said while holding up the Swan basket to the young woman standing by her side, “but it’s so pretty I have to have it.”
Jeff sold it to her for $.10 less than his grandmother had paid for it last year.
“You can never have too many rags,” an old man told a little boy standing by him as he grabbed a handful of the older dishtowels. “They’re good for cleaning up around the garage.”
The towels went for one penny each, and how the man’s eyes twinkle as he counted out carefully each coin.
“You see, Billy, this is how you save money.”
By noon Jeff had sold out of all of his grandmother’s treasures and realized what she had been buying all those years at yard sales. It was the same thing these people had just bought.
Happiness.

The Pecan

I had the best visit back to my hometown of Gainesville, Texas, recently. I didn’t see a single person I knew growing up. Well, not quite. I did see old Aunt Myrtle. Because of what happened with her it was all worth it.
Gainesville is known as the paper shell pecan capital of the world. These are the tastiest, moistest pecans on this green earth and the easiest to shell. A lot of people can crack them with their fingers. Every year there’s a Great Paper Shell Pecan Festival, and this year I decided I wanted to take my wife. I hadn’t been to one since I was a child.
“Now why on earth would I want to go to something like that?” she snorted.
“They have a pecan pie contest.”
“I’ll make the plane reservations.” My wife loves pecan pies.
So there we were, walking among the pecan groves looking at all the stalls of pecan pies, pecan pralines, pecan animal sculptures, pecan necklaces. I bought three huge bags of pecans to take back home.
When I was a kid, I was only interested in the carnival rides, Tilt-A-Whirl, Caterpiller and the one that went zig-zag all over the place but we passed on those. My wife wanted a front row seat at the pecan pie tasting.
When we returned to the motel room that evening I announced I wanted to go by my Aunt Myrtle’s house before we left town.
“You want to ruin a perfectly nice day with that old witch?”
“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to—“
“And I don’t.”
“This won’t take long,” I assured her. I put a paper shell pecan in my pocket, made a last minute stop in the bathroom, then drove over to my aunt’s house.
She was my mother’s older sister and supposedly the one who married well. She couldn’t claim to be the smart one because my mother was valedictorian of her class. She couldn’t claim to be the pretty one because my mother looked like a movie star. But what she could claim was that her husband made more money than my father. And there was no doubt about that. My father didn’t make much money in selling Royal Crown Cola. But Uncle Buck could sell anything. He sold furniture. He sold paint to paint stores. He could sell snow to Eskimos.
Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Buck played the role of Lady and Lord Bountiful with beneficent smiles, but I couldn’t look at her without thinking of the story my mother told me once when they were both just little girls on granddad’s farm.
“Bet you can’t crack this with your teeth,” Myrtle said to my mother, holding out a paper shell pecan.
“Sure I can,” Mom said and popped the pecan in her mouth and proceeded to chomp down.
“I just stuck that pecan up my butt,” little Myrtle said with a smirk.
My mother spit out the pecan and walked away. Over the years things didn’t much better. Let’s have Christmas dinner at our house, Myrtle would say, it’s bigger and nicer. And it didn’t stop after my mother died when I was a teen-ager. On the one hand she and Uncle Buck made a point of picking me up every Sunday to got to church, but she always had her little zingers.
“Oh, you’re combing your hair differently,” she said one Sunday morning.
I smiled and said, “Thank you.”
“Yes,” she added with a purr, “it doesn’t make your eyes bug out so much.”
When I graduated from the local community college first in my class with a 3.9 grade point average she said, “Well, good for you. You almost had a perfect grade, didn’t you?”
So over the years the visits became fewer and far between. My wife insisted on it.
“Every time we spend time with that old broad you come home in a bad mood.”
Myrtle was now in her late eighties. She had outlived Uncle Buck and all the other relatives. There in the big house with all the fancy furniture, appliances and clothing. All dressed up with nowhere to go.
When she answered the door she smiled brightly and laughed her high-pitched squeal. I gave her a hug but not a big one. She only weighed 90 pounds. She’d crack as easily as a paper shell pecan.
“Where’s—oh, what’s her name? Your wife.”
“Janet. She developed a headache from walking around the Pecan Festival all day.”
“Oh, I haven’t been to one of those in years. So crowded. I mean, after you’ve seen one pecan you’ve seen them all.” Again her high-pitched squeal.
We sat down in her carefully appointed living room.
“So, is—oh, what is her name?”
“Janet.”
“Yes, is she still on one of her diets?”
“No.”
“Oh, that’s a shame. Last time I saw her she almost looked thin.”
“Yes, she did, didn’t she?”
“Well, you know you look just like your mother.”
“Thank you.”
“That was such a shock. She died so young. Imagine. Cancer. I guess when you’ve got cancer it can make you moody. I mean, I loved our mother, but she was so moody. You couldn’t say a thing around her.”
“Yes, I know.”
I had just about reached my limit so I stood and smiled. “I suppose I shouldn’t leave Janet alone in the motel room. She might need something.”
“Yes, poor thing.”
I then took the pecan out of my pocket—the same pecan I had taken into the motel bathroom before coming to Aunt Myrtle’s house.
“Here. I brought you a world-famous Gainesville paper shell pecan. I bet you can crack it with your teeth.”

German POW, Tokyo Olympics and Lake Texoma

I love to tell stories and I never let the truth get in the way of a good one. But if you want the truth, just ask a veteran for a story. My friend Ken Leach of Gainesville, Texas, has a doozy about a German prisoner of war (POW), the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Lake Texoma.
Ken was in the Navy in 1964 and happened to be stationed in Japan at the time of the Olympic Games. He was enjoying his view from the stands when someone tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned around he saw a middle-aged man grinning at him.
“So you are from America?” the man asked in a German accent.
When Ken replied that he was, the German then asked where. After Ken told him Texas, he beamed even bigger and said, “I was a prisoner of war in Texas!”
Ken offered his new acquaintance the location of his home, Gainesville, the gentleman exclaimed, “That’s where my camp was!”
Many small towns around the United States had military installations during World War II. The town where I’m living now, Brooksville, FL, had an Army air field where B-17 bomber pilots were trained. Gainesville’s Camp Howze had training facilities and a POW camp. When I was a child my mother would drive me out to the site of Camp Howze. By then there was nothing left except concrete block foundations and an occasional set of steps leading to nowhere.
My father operated an ice cream truck at Camp Howze. As a boy on the farm my dad caught a splinter in the eye because he was too close to his brother who was chopping wood. Dad didn’t pass the physical for the Army because he was blind in one eye. Not being able to serve his country in time of war bothered Dad the rest of his life, so he always bought a red plastic poppy on Memorial Day. Now you may think that wasn’t much but my father was tight with his money. One year he asked me what was the least amount of money he could give me to make me happy for Christmas. So for Dad to go out of his way and voluntarily donate to veterans was a big deal.
Every camp had work details to keep the prisoners busy during their stay here in the United States. At Camp Howze, the POWs were trucked every morning to the construction site of Lake Texoma on the Red River. Truth be told it didn’t look as pretty as it did in the John Wayne movie of the 1940s, so I think a California river played the title role. The POWs cut underbrush and hauled out debris so that after the dam was completed and the lake filled up, anyone who fell off their water skis would not be poked by an errant tree branch. When Lake Texoma was officially open, it was the fifth largest man-made reservoir in the country for about two and a half minutes. Another reservoir was built somewhere out west and passed it by.
The camp had a regular routine for their guests from Germany. First thing in the morning they were fed a large warm breakfast. Around noon, they were given a sack lunch and after the closing whistle in the afternoon, they were trucked back to camp where a large hot meal awaited them. This was a better schedule than they followed when they were taking orders from that crazy SOB Hitler.
One afternoon, however, Ken’s affable acquaintance from the Tokyo Olympics did not hear the whistle which told them to run for the truck. After chopping away at the brush a little while longer, he began to wonder when they were going to blow that whistle. When he walked to the usual loading area, he realized no one was there. He was stuck there on the banks of the Red River without a way to get back to camp and his dinner. His only alternative was to hike down to the country road which would lead back to Camp Howze. Who knew when he would be fed because the camp was more than thirty miles away. His heart raced when he heard a truck engine behind him as he trudged down the narrow highway.
Looking behind him, the POW saw an old pickup truck coming towards him driven by an old Texas farmer. Two things made the upcoming encounter a bit chancy—the German wore the striped uniform which easily identified him as a POW and this was a farmer in his pickup and he probably had a shotgun on a rack on the back of the cab. One more thing—the POW spoke very little English and you know darned well that a Texas farmer in the 1940s didn’t speak German.
Luckily, he was able to communicate to the farmer his situation and the Texan said—I’m paraphrasing here—“Why shore, hop on in, boy. I’m goin’ that way.”
The German completed his story to my friend Ken in the Tokyo Olympic stadium and grinned. “I like Gainesville, Texas.”
Like any good story, this has a moral to it, in addition to a lot more truth than I’m used to telling. We all know the United States joined together in military strength to defeat our foes in World War II. But when it came to how we treated the German prisoners of war, we joined together in heart and soul to make them friends.

Holiday Dinners With the Family

I just hate holiday dinners with the family. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, any excuse for all the old faces to gather to chew on food and each other.
My children, of course, are fine. They know to eat what’s on their plates. We don’t threaten them with anything terrible if they don’t eat their vegetables. You don’t want vegetables? Fine. That means you’re full so you won’t have dessert. All of a sudden those green beans don’t look so bad.
What I hate are the backseat chefs, or whatever you call them. It never fails. My wife is making gravy with evaporated milk when her mother wanders up.
“You’re using a whole can of evaporated milk to make gravy? When we were growing up we were so poor we could only use half a can of evaporated milk and finished it off with water.”
“You had evaporated milk in a can?” my aunt counters. “We were so poor when we were young we only used water in our gravy.”
“You had gravy?” my mother-in-law’s aunt from a second marriage interjects. “My family was so poor we didn’t even have a stove. We stuck the chicken on a dead tree branch and held it over the fireplace. All the drippings sizzled on the logs.”
“You had logs?” Uncle Billy sits up at the table and waves his arms toward the women. Frankly, I don’t remember what side of the family he’s on. He just appeared one Sunday with someone, and they called him Uncle Billy. “We were so poor we had to burn dried cow patties. The smell was awful, but the chicken tasted mighty good. Better than that stuff wrapped up in plastic you get from the grocery store today.”
“You had cows?” Grandpa Grady grabs Billy’s arm and yanks it down. I don’t think Grandpa Grady likes Billy very much. “We didn’t even have cows. Only rich people had cows back in the good old days. We just had goats. And you try to start a fire with goat pellets!”
“I remember one year when we didn’t have any animals at all on the farm.” Grady’s sister Bertha meanders into the kitchen and sticks her nose in the saucepan where the gravy is simmering. She sniffs. “I hope that ain’t giblet gravy. I hate giblet gravy. That stuff gives me gas. You want to have a hard time cooking a family dinner? Try digging parsnips and carrots out of the ground and boil them in the bath water left over from Saturday night.”
“One Sunday we just ate dirt.” Billy brings along this woman who calls herself Ticey. I don’t know if Ticey is Billy’s wife, sister, cousin or girlfriend. No one dares ask. “We were from Oklahoma. That’s all we had. Dirt has a lot of good stuff, iron, minerals. And you thanked the Good Lord you had dirt to eat. Once in a while it rained so we got a treat. Mud pies.”
Just when you think it can’t get any worse, great grandma Donner comes in from the bathroom hitching up her drawers.
“That’s nothing. You should hear the story about Uncle Jim and his family going through this mountain pass one winter.”

Susie’s Story

I always looked forward to hurricanes that were headed our way.
Usually my best girlfriend Louise would come over to spend the night. Her parents thought our house was better built than theirs, and they wanted their little girl to be in the safest place possible. On the other hand, they always stayed at their house because if a hurricane did hit they wanted to be there to protect their personal property.
We spent the whole night in front of the television set watching the weather updates. I sat on Daddy’s lap as the weatherman told us that the storm had made landfall south of Miami and was turning northwest, right toward our town.
A few times I got scared, but Daddy just put his arms around me and told me everything was going to be all right. “And if it does hit our house, all that means is that we’ll have to move to another house, and we’ve done that many times. You’re used to that. And if we do get killed in the hurricane, well, we won’t have to be worried about them anymore, will we?”
By the time the hurricane reached out town it was a tropical storm, and just rained a lot, which made Louise and me very sleepy and we went on to bed. When we thought Daddy and Mommy were good and asleep we’d sneak out of my bedroom and get the ice cream out of the freezer, grab two spoons and go back to bed, eating ice cream. In the morning Louise’s mom picked her up. We could tell she had been crying all night, worrying that she would never see her little girl again. She was certain they would lose everything they owned and they’d never have anything ever again for the rest of their lives.
For a moment, I thought I should tell Louise’s mom what Daddy told me, but decided she didn’t really want any advice for an eleven-year-old girl. I never told my parents how I felt about hurricanes, but I suspected they knew, the same way they knew we had raided the freezer and ate ice cream.
One day when I was planning the next adventure for Louise and me, Daddy said in a casual way, “You know, I had a best friend when I was your age. He was about two years older than me, just like Louise is two years older than you. So he became a teen-ager before I did and things changed. It’s not like we weren’t friends any more, but we were becoming different people.”
Sure enough, in a couple of years Louise became a teen-ager and our friendship was never the same as it was when she would come over and watch the hurricane news on television.
We’re both grown-up now, and I miss the late night weather watches. Not so much about Louise but—I miss sitting on Daddy’s lap, having his arms around me, hearing him whispering in my ear, “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”

Halloween Wishes

Penelope wished for the good old days when she and her girlfriends roamed the streets in White Hall after midnight looking for adventure and some loose change. Jack the Ripper changed all that. More’s the pity.
Jack was not even his real name, and all he wanted was for someone to love him for who he was and not for his money. What he needed was a soft shoulder to cry on and a nice respectable way of making a living. Penelope was pleased to oblige him on both accounts. Their agreement saved their own lives and created a business opportunity.
London fog seeped under the weather-weary door to the storage room of Penelope’s shop of potions and spells. When it creaked slightly, she squinted into the darkness. A looming figure entered, and her nose crinkled as wafts of Virginia pipe tobacco filled her nostrils. She wished the boy bought a finer leaf but said nothing to him. He was so dependable in discharging his duties.
The candle on the table in front of her flickered as the front door opened. A short, portly woman with wisps of gray hair framing her wrinkled face entered slowly, hesitantly.
“Come in, come in, dearie.” Penelope laughed and then coughed. Any movement in the room caused the dust to fly into her mouth. One of these days she must remember to clean her establishment. “Sit down, sit down. You are among friends here.” After the woman sat, Penelope asked, “Did you bring the money?”
“Everyone says you’re the best fortuneteller that money can buy,” the woman said shyly.
“Did you bring the money?” Penelope repeated harshly.
“Oh, yes. Here it is.” The woman slid a cracked leather purse across the table. “I must say, I thought the fee was unreasonable, but I was assured this particular topic was your specialty.”
Penelope opened the purse and counted the coins. “Good. It’s all there.” She looked into the woman’s sad eyes. “So who do you want dead? I mean—whose future do you want told?”
“My husband,” she whispered. “He was a good man for the first twenty years, but lately his temper has changed. I’m thinking he might be dreadful sick, the way he’s been acting and all. Could it be—might the reason be—is he about to die?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he went to see his Maker tonight.” Penelope looked past the woman to the dark storage room and nodded. “Now where about might he be this time of night?”
“The Queen’s Pub, two blocks over.”
“Not a good sign,” Penelope said shaking her head. “I see large evil men lurking about, ready to slit a throat for a shilling. Especially tonight, All Hallow’s Eve.”
“Oh, dear.”
“What’s he wearing?”
“Nothing fancy, factory worker’s clothes. He does like to don his father’s old tam when he goes to the pub. A faded tartan.”
“Another bad sign. I keep seeing visions of Mary Queen of Scots, and you know what happened to her.”
The hulking shadow slipped out the back door. The old woman jumped and looked around.
“What was that?”
“Fate. “ Penelope shook her head. “Your husband surely will not escape Fate tonight.”
Tears filled the woman’s eyes. “But I don’t want him to die. I thought I did, but not really.”
Penelope bolted from her chair and rushed through the storage room to the back door. Stepping out into the alley she could scarcely make out the huge shadow of a man in the fog and flickering streetlamp.
“Whoa, Stanley! She changed her mind!”