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.

12. April 2024 · Comments Off on From – West Towards the Sunset, the new W-I-P · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(This will be a young adult adventure, about a family going west on the California trail in 1846.)

I think it must have been two weeks after leaving the big company that Jon and I became lost on the prairie late one afternoon. We were gathering buffalo chips, while Pa and the other men made camp, and Ma and the other women sorted out what they were going to cook for supper, especially if the menfolk had managed to hunt some fresh meat and as soon as we brought more chips – and wood for the fire, assuming that we were able to find any.

Jon and I walked away from camp that afternoon, each of us with an empty pair of big tow sacks. We were with some of the others at first – the Herlihy boys and Shiboone. It was one of those days with a clear blue sky arching overhead, spotted only with little shreds of cloud, like bits of rag and clumps of lint torn or scraped from some larger fabric. The rolling prairie stretched out all around, almost completely featureless, save for the distant thread of the Platte River and the range of low bluffs that ringed it. The trail at this point meandered along parallel to the river, but not really close to it. It seemed hardly any time at all before we had wandered farther and farther from camp, deeper and deeper into the grasslands. I can’t recall why – only that the air seemed clear and fresh, the wind stirring the grass at the tops of the low rise, and I wanted to see what I could beyond. Then there was a good, well-dried spread of buffalo chips, and another higher hill that promised a better view, the grass waving in the light breeze as the sun slid father down in the west … and Jon suddenly looked around and said, tremulously,

“Sally … where’s the camp?”

We were well out of sight of the wagons, I realized with a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. That feeling sank even farther when I realized that I didn’t know which direction to go. I could not hear – as hard as I listened – the clamor of our company setting up camp. The clank of harness chains, the men calling to each other, Boomer and the other dogs barking, the cattle lowing to each other as they grazed … nothing, only the whispering rustle of the wind in the tall grass.

But I knew better than to panic. I couldn’t let it show that I was nearly frightened to death, all alone on the wild and trackless prairie with my little brother.

“We have to sit down and think,” I said finally. “And not run as if we were being chased by wolves…”

“Are there wolves here, Sally?” Jon’s lips trembled. I was afraid that he was going to cry and I wished that I hadn’t mentioned wolves.

“There are, I think – but they only hunt at night … and it’s still daylight,” I said – and that was the first thing that gave me a notion. “See … there is the sun, in the west. If we keep it to our left as we walk… then we aren’t going in a circle. If we walk in a straight line, Jon, I think that we’ll come to the river. But before then, we should see the trail.”

“All right,” Jon answered. He already sounded reassured. I didn’t tell him that if we found the trail … we should have to examine it very carefully, to see if our party had passed over it, or were the tracks from one ahead of us? Would we walk to the west … or back along the tracks and hope to find our company, before it got dark. If night came … I didn’t want to think about that. I hoped that Pa, or Mr. Glennie and Oscar would be sent out on horseback to find us, but as Grandpa Reverend always said, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ I couldn’t build a plan on hoping that someone would find us. I had gotten us lost – and it was up to me to get us un-lost. I hoped that we could find our camp before Ma would begin to fear that she would lose us the way that Aunt Rachael had lost our Cousin Matty. I took Jon’s hand, hoisted our two sacks of buffalo chips in my other hand, and we set out walking. I tried to set our path in as straight a way as was possible, hoping that every moment we would see the thread of smoke from our campfires rising into the air, and then the pale canvas wagon covers.

Straight as a rule, we walked, although it did take us a tiresome way, up the side of a low hill, and down the other. I didn’t see anything but more of the same rolling prairie grasses – but reassuringly, the line of bluffs, far and away on the far side of the river. So – at least, we were walking the right direction.

How had we managed to walk so far? It was as if everything had been swallowed up by the sheer vastness of it all. Jon and I walked up another rise, down the far side, up another … and then I was reassured of the value of my own good sense. We finally came upon the trampled tracks of a cattle herd, scored briefly here and there by the deep ruts of wagon wheels – a track that went towards the setting sun.

“Look here, Jon,” I said to my brother. “I think this must be the trail. Whether it was made by our company or another … I can’t really tell. Look around – and do you think we came this way, today?”

Jon frowned and shook his head. “It all looks the same to me, Sally. The same hills and grass. Nothing – all the same. It’s not like back in Ohio, with different trees, different hills.”

I sighed. “Let me think, Jon – about whether to go east or west. There might be a party ahead of us. I just can’t tell how old the marks are. I think … I hope that we have crossed our own track, and everyone is towards the west of us. I just don’t know…”

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 wagon party had passed. The Indians were just suddenly there.

A half a chapter from the latest work, the YA adventure now tentatively titled West Towards the Sunset.

As Ma predicted, the meeting was not done in twenty minutes. Ma looked impatiently toward the Clayton wagon, and the gathering of men around it, and said,

“Go fetch your father, Jon. I’m about to feed his share of dinner to Boomer.”

Jon went off at a run, as Ma finished filling Pa’s plate with cold biscuits and some slices of ham from our stores, and a scoop of apple crumble that Ma had made from dried apples the night before. I was hungry, impatient for sitting down and eating. But within a minute or two, Jon returned, breathless and tearful.

“Ma, Sally – come quick! They’re talking about shooting all the dogs!”

“Oh, my dear Lord!” Ma exclaimed. She flung off her apron; we had already lost any appetite for food, after hearing this.

“Pa wouldn’t let them shoot Boomer, would be?” Jon demanded tearfully and Ma replied,

“No more than he would let someone shoot one of you!” which seemed to comfort Jon at least a little, and he loved Boomer so very much. But I recollected how Major Clayton disliked dogs – and he was the captain of the company, and would Pa have any voice in a decision that the men of the wagon company had voted on?

It turned out that Pa had more voice than I had thought at first, as well as more respect among the men of the company generally. When Ma and Jon and I came running to where the men were at the meeting that Major Clayton had called – it had already gotten fractious and angry. Mr. Herlihy the Irish blacksmith was already shouting, so angry that his face was nearly as red as his hair and wiry beard, his powerful hands knotted into fists.

“God blast you for a treacherous, murdering salpeen!” He bellowed into Major Clayton’s face. “Murther me own dogs, you say! In hell you will be, before ye and your bully-boys harm a hair on the back of them!” And he went on, the Irish in him coming out so thick that we didn’t rightly understand more than one word in five.

“I will not stand for being addressed in this disrespectful manner!” Major Clayton shouted back, when Mr. Herlihy had run out of breath and before anyone else could get in a word by turning it to the thin side and wedging it in.

“Then you had better sit down for it!” Mr. Herlihy roared, and the shouting from all the men present burst out like the whistle from a steamboat. In the meantime, Mrs. Bishop, the poor invalid woman had her little spotted spaniel in her arms, hugged to her as she wept torrents and her husband had her arm around her, trying to talk reason and not being heard by anyone. We stood next to Mr. Steitler and Henry, at the edge of the crowd and Ma asked him what had happened to bring about all this ruckus.

“The lad’s dog,” Mr. Steitler replied. “Our commander of wagons has put it to a vote that all the dogs should be shot as a hazard to the company, since he blames the dog for panicking Herr Martindale’s cattle and breaking the wagon-tongue. All the dogs are a danger. Putting the wagon-train at the risk of harm, he says.”

“Surely the men have not approved this…” Ma replied, and Mr. Steitler shrugged.

“The majority voted so – that the dogs are a risk to all. I did not agree, but since I am a foreigner…”

This was appalling. We could not allow this, not Boomer. What would Pa do, now? Ma had said that Pa would as much countenance someone shooting Boomer as Jon or I … but this was the company, and we were out on the wagon trail, a week-long journey from where there was any settled law.

Meanwhile, Mr. Herlihy had taken a breath and resumed shouting at Major Clayton – and he had such a powerful bellow that he could be heard over the clamor.

“Before God, I swear I will leave the company and set off on me own, and what say ye to that, ye thrice-damned pismire! The de’il will make a ladder o’ your spine, afore ye murder my dogs!”

“You’ll be murdered yourself by the Indian savages before you get a day farther!” Major Clayton roared back, and suddenly, there was Pa, stepping up on the wheel of the Major’s wagon, where he could be seen above the heads of the men gathered. Pa put two fingers in his mouth and whistled – a shrill blast that cut through the babble, and such was Pa’s manner of resolute command, after the anger in Mr. Herlihy and the others, that there was a momentary silence – likely out of sheer surprise – into which Pa said, calmly,

“And I’ll take my own wagon and go with Herlihy, here. We voted to form a company, boys; we can vote to un-make it. Who’s with us, then?”

“I am!” That was Mr. Bishop, with his arm around his distraught wife, still weeping over the little spotted pup cradled in her arms. Mr. Bishop looked around, as if he was looking for support in his indignation. Three of the five German boys chorused,

“Ja! Ja – yes, we go mit Herr Kettering! Aber naturlich!” It seemed that they were indignant over their dog being blamed by the Major, in spite of doing all they could to help mend Mr. Martindale’s wagon to make up for it. Mr. Steitler also nodded, in vigorous agreement.

“Mir auch! We go, also mit Herr Kettering!”

At that, nearly a dozen other men called out their own dissent with Major Clayton’s captaincy; some had dogs, others had not, but I guess had been unhappy with how the Major exempted himself and his cronies from taking a turn at guard at night and for traveling on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. The Major looked fit to be tied, almost white with rage at being defied.

“Then leave and be damned to you all!” He shouted – and some of those men and boys who had decided to break from his company jeered scornfully, calling him a tyrannical old windbag and other names that at the time I did not know the meaning of.

Pa, still perched above the crowd, put two fingers in his mouth and whistled again for attention.

“Lads – we’ll move on in ten minutes, all of those who want to leave with me.” He jumped down, and extended his hand to the Major, who refused it and glared. “No hard feelings, sir? We just can’t countenance your latest order. Best that we go our own way, then.”

Major Clayton looked as if he would spit on Pa. “You be damned, sir! You and all the rest of you vile, selfish ingrates!”

“I can not say that it has been a pure pleasure traveling with you,” Pa replied. He seemed unruffled, although Mr. Herlihy glowered, scowling as if he would like to strangle Major Clayton with his bare hands, once Major Clayton had taken a moment and untangled the real intent of what Pa had told him. “Good day to you, sir.” Pa looked past the Major, at the remaining crowd. “Any of the rest of you are welcome to join us and form a new company. Ten minutes, boys. We’ll roll out in ten minutes.”

And that was it – the breaking up of the company. There were eleven wagons following ours and the Herlihy’s two, away from that nooning place. Mr. Martindale and his family followed a little later, rejoining us that evening, at the place where Pa and Mr. Steitler decided to camp, as the sun slid down into the west that evening.