I will be out of pocket for about a week, as my daughter and I with Wee Jamie must make a fast road trip to California. We have been notified by one of my brothers that my mother has been put into hospice care, and that she wants to see the three of us, one more time. So, pack up the car, and hit the road – back next  week. We’re planning to return by way of 40, or the new version of Highway 66, and stop off to see the Grand Canyon, as we will be out that way, and my daughter insists that we are overdue for an adventure, and when will we be out that way again?

 

Circa 1966 – me, baby brother Sander, JP, Mom and Pip.

This is the picture that I used for the cover of my very first book – the family memoir cobbled together from posts on the original milblog in 2002-2004, which everyone found so terribly amusing and insisted, solo and chorus, that I collect them all in a book. Mom always said that in it I made her and my father sound much more amusing than she thought they really were.

 

The matter of a certain literary style and practice came up a couple of months ago – and I was reminded again of the discussion in a weird way, when my daughter and I watched the Night at the Museum movie series. This was in the interests of not freaking out Wee Jamie terribly, who is soaking up information and stimuli like a small, child-shaped sponge. I vaguely recall watching the first of the series, but my daughter did not, so I must have seen it in a theater, possibly when the Gentleman With Whom I (Once) Kept Company was on one of his yearly visits to Texas. Cute movie, and one which loaded in a lot of established actors in supporting roles (Ricky Gervais? Seriously?) …but anyway. (It is kind of cool, though – imagining an animated dinosaur skeleton playing ‘fetch’ the bone, and behaving like a playful puppy…)

The museum of the initial movie setting reminded me of an elementary school field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park, which also covered the La Brea Tar Pits, with all the life-sized landscaped dioramas, and the stuffed critters, mounted dinosaur bones and the remains of paleolithic critters excavated from the tar pits… all terribly retro and rather quaint, actually. There’s a natural history museum here in the old upscale part of San Antonio, the Witte Museum, with pretty much the same sort of exhibits, established around the same period, now with the addition of lighting and sound effects.

In any event, I began to think on how these kinds of exhibits became so very popular in the 19th century: I mean, the showman P. T. Barnum started with his exhibit of natural curiosities, scientific exhibits, wonders, and marvels early on. People flocked to see them in the flesh, and twice natural size – because most ordinary people didn’t often see extraordinary things; dinosaur bones, ancient Eqyptian temples, statues of Greek gods and goddesses, African elephants … such were curiosities, and rare ones at that. So going to P. T. Barnum’s flamboyant exhibits, and later on to more staid and scholarly local museums of natural history – well, there they were; all the exotic natural history and fabled creatures that you could wish to see, before movies and television brought them to us in living color in theater and living room.

On one of the book/author blogs which I follow (can’t recall which one or when, or even if it is an original insight!) another writer made what I realized immediately was a perceptive observation, regarding those verbally florid Victorian novelists who went on for pages and pages, describing scenes, settings and characters. Modern readers find this terribly frustrating, as this tendency bogs down the plot something awful. The reason Victorian authors did so was because most of their readers then had no mental archive of visual references to build on! When someone like Sir Walter Scott wrote about medieval Perth, or Dumas wrote about Renaissance France, or Lew Wallace about the Roman-era Holy Land, they were setting the necessary scene for readers in necessary and exacting detail for a reader who perhaps might at best have seen a crude black and white line drawing, or a hand-colored lithograph of a castle, Jerusalem, or the skyline of Paris. There was nothing in the 19th century reader’s visual vocabulary anything like what movies, television, even color photographs in glossy coffee-table books provide modern readers. We have the advantage of already having those visuals in mind, and don’t need to have them spelled out at length.

 

12. May 2024 · 4 comments · Categories: Domestic

It’s one of those things that came upon us in the last few years – what with periods of erratic employment, residence in Utah where the LDS practice is to keep a couple of years supply of foodstuffs on hand, the occasional natural disaster, the Covidiocy and the Great Texas Snowmagedden, and a certain primal fear that I don’t know where it came from – we have kept an insanely well-stocked pantry, and a full-to the brim freezer in the garage. For emergencies, you know. My daughter cannot turn down a tempting bargain on the ‘remainder’ shelves at the local grocery store, and I have memories of being overseas at the end of a very long resupply chain. I certainly didn’t grow up with this; Mom routinely finished out the day of Dad’s paycheck being deposited with a couple of cans of tuna and a half-empty bottle of Worcestershire Sauce in the pantry. Although the paternal grandparents did have several years’ worth of canned goods in their garage, and vivid memories of the Depression and WWII rationing… so maybe this impulse skipped a generation.

My daughter and I both dream mad dreams of a walk-in pantry, with floor to ceiling shelves, drawers and bins, all neatly organized, and all the foodstuffs in air-tight containers and neatly labeled, readily accessible. My daughter may yet achieve this dream, but at the moment, the pantry is a small square closet about the size of an old-fashioned telephone booth – that, and the front hall closet, which is about the same dimensions. Both are stacked to the brim with canned goods and shelf-stable things like canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, rice, dried beans, flour, sugar and pastas. One is fitted out with shelves (all densely packed), the other is stacked with tubs. So, today we tackled the closet with tubs. The tubs had been packed rather randomly; a lot of stuff jumbled together. Today, we repacked the tubs: all the rice in one, dried beans in another, assorted pastas in a third, flour, sugar and semolina in a fourth, and all the tomato and tomato sauce in one on top of the Tetris-style stack. We had kind of forgotten how many packages of spaghetti we had stashed away – much of it the really good, imported stuff. (Bought on sale, of course. What, do we look like we are related to the Rockefellers or the Gettys?) You see, an important element in keeping a full pantry is to rotate stuff, not stash it away for years and forget about it all. I’m pretty certain that the oldest stuff in the grandparent’s garage had to be thrown away, through being dangerously outdated. At least now, I can look at the tubs in the closet, and know what is there …

We really ought to start eating those Corsicana fruitcakes, though. Bought at half price, after last Christmas.

We LIKE fruitcake. Got a problem with that?

… so far from God, as the saying went – so close to the United States. Mexico was very close to us, when I was growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the 1960s and early 70s. My elementary school had us study Mexican history in the 6th grade – if I remember correctly, that was part of the unified school district curriculum. We did a field trip to Olvera St., in the old part of downtown, at least three of the old Spanish missions were within a short drive from our various homes, and we weren’t allowed to forget that Los Angeles itself had Spanish origins and Mexican governance for decades before American statehood. For Southern California, Mexico was just a hop, skip, and a jump away – just as it is for South Texas.

A day trip to Tijuana when I would have been about thirteen or fourteen was my first trip to a foreign country. Dad took JP, Pip, and I with him on a trip to could get a new headliner installed in the ’52 Plymouth station wagon which was our family’s main ride. I don’t know why Tijuana, or how Dad located a workshop there that could do the work – but he did, and we spent a whole day there. I guess they could do it in Tijuana for a fraction of the cost of having it done anywhere closer to home. We drove down from Los Angeles, crossed the border, dropped off the car, and spent the hours until it was ready wandering through nearby shops catering to the tourist trade; folk art, hand-blown glass, and Mexican-style furniture. We watched some glassblowers at work, which was pretty interesting, looked at the finished glass menageries, walked by the bull ring and looked at the posters – but as it was a weekday, there was no bullfight scheduled, which was mildly disappointing. We went to a grocery store were Dad bought fresh rolls, cheese and soft drinks for lunch … and in the afternoon, we collected the station wagon and drove home.

Later, when Dad got interested in dune buggies and off-roading, he built a custom dune buggy on the chassis, transmission and engine of a VW bug – they were favored for their low profile and disinclination to roll over on steep inclines, which couldn’t be said of jeeps. Dad welded a custom body out of tube steel lengths, and sourced seats, dash, windshield, and enormous-capacity gas tanks from his favorite junkyards. The resulting junk-parts vehicle looked pretty much like something out of the Mad Max franchise. Over the Easter week holiday break, Dad would take my brothers P.J. and Sander in that dune buggy and go on an extended off-road camping trip to Baja California. They’d camp out in the desert, or on the beaches, eat beanie-weenies out of the can, forgo washing … and have a glorious time of it, all week long. (Meanwhile, Mom and Pip and I would go shopping, see a movie or go to the theater, and elegantly lunch in restaurants … and towards the end of the week, get ready for Easter; each of us had a glorious time over the Easter week break, partaking in those activities which engaged us the most. Pip and I would have been miserable, dragged on such a road trip; Dad, JP and Sander would have hated the ladies-who-lunch routine. To each, their own, and we were much happier for it.)  

What brought all this on was this horrifying story – of three surfing tourists turning up dead – murdered on their dream surfing trip to Baja. Not just the violence, robbery, murder and all – but that it all happened in a place that Dad and my brothers used to frequent, without any shred of concern about danger on visiting. Dad had no worries taking two kids through Baha, no more than any other place north of the border. He possessed a sidearm and was a good  shot with it; I do not know if he took it with him on those trips for personal projection; likely not, as that was frowned upon by Mexican authorities even then. The small towns and the open country along the length of Baha California seemed as safe as any place north of the border. Baja, Ensenada, Rosarita Beach … all those places named in the news stories are familiar. Ensenada and Rosarita just an easy day trip over the border, for the beaches, the bars and restaurants serving excellent and comparatively inexpensive local seafood cooked with Mexican flair.

But that was then, this is now – and another horrible reminder that places which once were fun and safe to visit are not safe now.

 

19. April 2024 · Comments Off on From “West Toward the Sunset” · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Another snippet of the current W-I-P, wherein Sally and her little brother Jon have become lost on the prairie while gathering buffalo chips …

It was at that moment that I nearly jumped out of my own skin. A party of Indians appeared, as if out of the very air – not a sound, not a warning. At least a dozen of them, all men – on horses with unshod hoofs. They didn’t make a sound on the battered grass where a big wagon party had passed with a passel of loose cattle. The Indians were just suddenly there. Jon didn’t make a sound, for which I was grateful, but he pressed close against me, and I put my arm around his shoulders.

“Hello,” I said, although I was quite certain that they wouldn’t understand me – but it was polite to say, and Ma always insisted on good manners to strangers, even Red Indians.

And that was the curious part; the two who stood closest to us, after they all slid down from their ponies – were really red. Half of their faces, anyway; painted with red paint. They had also shaved their eyebrows and the hair on their heads nearly bald, save for a scalp-lock at the top. One had adorned the top of his head with a crest of stiff horsehair, dyed red and yellow. That one Indian man, who seemed like he was the leader, stepped closer to me and held up his hand. He said something that I couldn’t understand, guttural and harsh sounding, and waggled his fingers. I said ‘Hello,” again, as politely as I could.

I was glad that my voice didn’t shake. We were mortal afraid of Indians, then – especially being alone as Jon and I were. Although the Indians that we had seen in Independence, and those who ran the ferry over the Kansas River crossing hadn’t seemed that much off from the ordinary. They were just people, although considerably more browned from the sun and much more skimpily dressed than most.

And I saw that half of the Indian party were really boys – just about my age, and perhaps a bit younger – skinny, half-naked and … really not all that dangerous-looking. Were Jon and I supposed to be mortally afraid of boys hardly as old as I was? They seemed as curious about us as I would have been – that is, if Pa and Mr. Herlihy or Mr. Glennie had been with us. Indeed, one of the boys came up really close to us, as the older ones talked among themselves over our heads. That one boy reached out and touched Jon’s hair, feeling it with his fingers in one hand as he reached for the little wood-hilted knife hanging from the string that held the little flap of cloth around his middle to hide his male parts. It was as if that Indian boy were considering a bit of scalp-taking, and Jon flinched.

That was it, for me – no one had the right to scare my little brother out of his skin! I was so angry that I shoved that Indian boy so hard – so hard that he fell backwards on his behind.

“You let my brother alone!” I yelled at him, as fierce as if I were chasing off Aunt Rachael’s bully goose, who used to chase Jon and the other children something fierce. The boy glared at me, but he didn’t dare come any closer. He crawled away rapidly, before he got to his feet again. I was a bit taller than he was, and I must have been at least as strong. All the grown-up Indian men laughed. They said things to the boy that sounded as if they were making fun of him; he looked abashed and embarrassed. I put my arm around Jon and pulled him even closer to me.

“Don’t worry, Jon,” I whispered. “We’ll be all right. We’re close to camp, and they don’t really seem to want to hurt us.”

Jon’s lips wobbled. “Is Pa gonna come for us soon?”

“I hope so,” I whispered back. I had just about decided that I should chance our luck. The Indians didn’t seem all that inclined to take us prisoner – before or after scalping both of us. I thought I should just say goodbye and stride off confidently in the direction that I thought that our camp should be in.

After all – they hadn’t tried to hurt us or take us officially captive, yet. I reasoned that if they hadn’t done Jon or I any harm … maybe they would allow us to just go our way.

Whichever way that might be – which I didn’t know, but no one had to really know that, least of all these Indians.

Just as I had made up my mind to do this, I heard the jingling of harness, and the steady dull clip-clopping of shod hooves. The Indians – they all turned, alert in every bone. Half of them slid from their horses and vanished. It was like a trick from a traveling magician; one minute they were there, and the next they were gone, melted into the remains of tall grass, or shallow hollows in the ground.

“Well, well … what do we have here, Deacon?” drawled the man holding the reins of a wagon drawn by half a dozen mules, hitched two and two and two. He was a dark man, with grizzled hair, dressed almost like an Indian himself. He halted the mules and regarded us all – Jon and I, and the remaining visible Indians with great interest.

The other man stood up in the wagon, with a big black book clutched to his chest. He was older – I mean, I think they both were about the same age as Grandpa Reverend, but the dark man driving the wagon looked somehow fitter. Spry. He was dressed in a fringed leather hunting coat that looked somewhat like the Indians wore, and a long knife at his belt. The man called Deacon just looked old, with white hair down to his shoulders, like the picture of a prophet in the Old Testament – but he looked happy, not thunderously angry, as Grandpa Reverend always allowed that the prophets were, given that they were sent to chastise sinners.

“Children, Mr. Bayless – and the heathen that I was sent to redeem!” Deacon exclaimed, waving his free hand, and the other man – Mr. Bayless heaved a great sigh and seemed to roll his eyes in exasperation. “It is a heavenly sign, indeed! Tell them that I mean no harm! I have come to bring them the good news!” his eye finally fell upon Jon and I. “Children … are you of the Kettering party? I was told that such a company was on the trail, and we were desirous of joining such a godly company…”

Meanwhile, Mr. Bayless was making peculiar sweeping gestures with his hands, and venturing some words – words which the red-painted Indian with the horsehair crest to his scalp-lock and the others all appeared to understand – from the rapt manner in which they all paid mind. The Indian leader then responded with similar. Sign-talk, I think they called it. A simple manner to speak with another tribe if there was no language in common. It was a curious thing – that the Indian tribes in the wild lands beyond the Mississippi River had no single language between them, other than this signing-talk.

The other Indians – the ones who had hidden – emerged silently from wherever they had concealed themselves. They stood around, watching the signing-talk, listening to Mr. Bayless and the horse-hair-crested Indian leader, and talking among each other.