Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Harvey's Chili

On a clear day, just at dusk, mountains in Mexico could be seen from the ranch. They stood far away on the distant, shimmering line of the western horizon. The brilliant light of the setting sun would burst forth in vivid hues of orange and burgundy as the sun touched, then sank into the ground behind, them. The play of golden light on high, feathered clouds was a miracle unfolding.

Memories from youth are poignant, vivid things. They become more precious with the passage of time. Many of mine center on time spent in and around an old hunting camp on the Martinez Ranch in far Southwest Texas. Those days are now well over forty years in my past.

The small ranch house was not that unusual at first glance. I knew that it had to be fairly ancient, as I had met the old Mexican ranch hand who told me that he had been born in it and spent his early childhood living there. His face was etched with lines that looked like tiny arroyos worn into the rugged land around him. His hands had the look and color of old saddle leather, fingers gnarled with age. Those hands were steady and sure as he trickled Kite tobacco onto a tiny sheet of translucent cigarette paper. He rolled the smoke deftly and brought the flaming end of a sulphur match or Lucifer, against the tip. Looking at me through the cloud of smoke shrouding his head, his clear, green eyes would shine as he told me stories about the land.

Looking more closely at the house, you could see that it actually was different from many others. There were no windows. Instead, there were five doors--two on the front, two on the back and one on the west end. The east end of the house was dominated by a huge fireplace. From inside, the face of the fireplace was enhanced by an ancient hearth whose surface had random, shallow, bowl shaped indentions worn into it from the vigorous grinding of dried corn into masa or meal for tortillas. Heavy, black soot covered the ceiling and walls, forming layered patterns on the face of the fireplace. The chimney drew poorly, if at all.

We were enjoying an early season deer hunt on the ranch, surrounded by family and friends. The sprawling, rambling acres of the land overlapped portions of the border separating Zapata and Webb counties in the heart of the South Texas brush country. This part of the state is also known as the Wild Horse Desert. There are rolling, rocky hills covered with ceniza or purple sage as well as black brush, huisache, mesquite and varieties of cactus. Numerous dry washes or arroyos cut through the surface of the land creating sheer, dry gullies that can flood quickly in a rare sudden downpour, carrying away everything in their path. Large rattlesnakes are numerous. There are also a sizable populations of javelina, white-tail deer, bobcats, coyotes and numerous other varmints.

Richard, Randy, Pee-Wee and Charly were the other boys in the group. We ranged from 13 to 17 years of age. One of the adults had shot a fine young buck for camp meat, and we were all grateful that fresh venison would soon dominate the menu.

It had settled into a lazy evening. Dominoes were clattering on the table in the house. Good natured exchanges floated back and forth between the men as they played. While the men played dominoes, we played cards on one of the bunks in the room. The afternoon had been hot and still, but that was about to change.

Sounding like shots, two of the open doors suddenly slammed shut! A third followed closely. We came straight up out of our bunks at the sound. Strong winds rolled over and tore at the old house, forcing groans, creaks and snaps from the walls. An updraft through the chimney created a mournful howl, sounding like some large, suffering living thing. The house had withstood many such blows, but the groans it conceded to this force sounded like brittle old bones cracking and about to break. A roaring blue norther had just blown in.

The temperature plummeted, and our chief concern quickly centered on the desire to stay warm as icy cold penetrated cracks in those old walls. T.C. "Sleepy" Fine and I made for the woodpile outside against the wall. We pulled a heavy canvas tarp back from the split mesquite cord wood and raked together several armloads to stack inside by the fireplace.

Huffing from the sudden exertion I looked up into Sleepy's face. His broad smile and enthusiasm wiped away years from that face. He goosed me in the ribs, then hugged me to him when I jumped. He was chief of police in my hometown of Premont and told the funniest, most wonderful stories I ever heard. He was also my godfather. I loved him fiercely. Life had hit Sleepy hard on more than one occasion, but he faced it without illusion. What really made me love him was the fact that he also faced life without disillusion. He absolutely relished the experience of living. Enabling me to grasp and accept this distinction was his greatest gift.

Soon, a roaring fire rose to confront the vicious cold. Smoke billowed into the room from the open hearth, as the chimney refused to draw. We wedged a couple of doors open slightly in an attempt to balance our desire for warmth with the need to breathe.

Al Nivens headed one of the families on the lease. His father-in-law Harvey was a guest on this hunt. Harvey had retired as a railroad engineer and still wore the pin-striped Big Smith coveralls and matching cap from his days on the rails. He was a portly gentleman with a round, ruddy face dominated by a huge, friendly smile. I discovered that he also made the best venison chili in the entire world.

This great old man had spent the early evening hours dicing the hindquarters of a deer into tiny cubes. Now he browned the meat in the cured embrace of a large dutch oven resting on a bed of coals pulled forward from the crackling fireplace. He added chopped onions, garlic, comino, tomatoes, chili powder, flour, water and whatever other exotic ingredients he had garnered into that simmering cauldron.

Harvey's efforts would provide lunch the next day, but later that night the aroma of that chili was the sole focus of everyone in the house. Alston Brown slipped over to give the bubbling pot a quick stir. It was no surprise that the ladle found its way to his mouth. His eyes rolled back. Harvey chuckled and encouraged the rest of us to have a sample. It was just plain great, and the longer it cooked, the better it got. To this day I still dream of that chili.

We had all settled into warm, blanket-shrouded bunks when Harvey felt the urge to visit the old outhouse in the side yard. Its predecessor had been a magnificent two-seater that had succumbed to the elements years before, becoming an interesting, but useless, pile of old lumber. Bundling up, Harvey lumbered out the door.

Suddenly, we heard a scream! It was an awful sound that would not stop. It got louder, if possible, overriding the other noises in the howling wind. As we ran through the house and spilled into the yard, the fractured beam of Harvey's flashlight spilled crazily through the cracks of the walls of the outhouse.

Was it a rattlesnake? As we moved forward cautiously, the door burst open and Harvey lurched out, huge overalls shackling his ankles. Wild-eyed, he stumbled three short steps and tumbled roughly to the ground. "It went right for me!" he yelled. He shook a hand behind him in the direction of the great black open maw of a door. We poured light into the opening, and eyes glowed like small coals back at us.

There, perched on the raised lid of the seat stood the most indignant woodpecker you ever saw! Head tilted to one side, it gave an angry squawk and burst over our heads to disappear into the welcome freedom of the boundless, windy night sky.

Harvey had totally lost his sense of humor, which, of course, made matters worse. Dad, Sleepy and Al were rolling on the ground beside Harvey, lost in convulsions of helpless laughter. Dad looked at me, tears streaming down his face, tried desperately to control himself, then lost it all again.

With what dignity he could muster, Harvey fought to his feet, got his overalls up from around his ankles, and stalked back toward the house. Richard and I were behind. "It sure was a big 'un, Harvey," Richard said in solemn tones. Harvey wheeled to face us. We watched that stern glare dissolve into laughter at the sight of our awkward grins. With twinkling eyes, his arms draped our shoulders, gathering us to him. We sat at the table inside and enjoyed one more cup of chili.

I think of Harvey often and remember him fondly. His are some of the memories I treasure most from the part of my life spent on that ranch in the old house with no windows, five doors and a chimney that wouldn't draw...

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Dutchman

The mid morning sun burned brightly in a cobalt blue, cloudless sky. It was hot, as only the Texas brush country in August can be. Milling cattle raised a roiling cloud of dust that hung heavily in the air. It clung to the men and cattle in and around the corral--a thickening layer of tan powder. The sound of hoofs created a constant rumble as the stock bolted back and forth. Cattle bawled their displeasure at being crowded so. Cutting gates worked open and shut, separating yearlings and smaller calves from the larger herd for branding and castrating. Cowhands called to one another as they whistled at and cajoled the cattle. One man on horseback pushed and crowded the stock as necessary. His horse focused on the cattle, and occasionally huffed when a sudden burst of speed was needed.

The Dutchman was in the corral alongside the outer fence as the cattle milled and lowed. Rivulets of sweat rolled down his face, leaving dark tracks through the dust and dirt caked there. He tapped a sideboard of the outer fence, asking me to pass his stiff lariat through to him. He grabbed the rope in his left hand, built a small loop, and sailed it out just ahead of a yearling trotting quickly past him. The yearling's head passed into the loop as he moved forward. Johnny popped the rope to draw slack and tighten the loop securely around the animal's neck. Then he quickly dallied up on the short, upright steel bar he had welded to the left arm of his wheelchair. That done, he jerked the chair sideways and set himself against the coming instant when the slack in the rope would disappear, hoping to stop and turn the calf while a cowboy ran in to leg it over so it could be worked.

The rope snapped taut, pulling the chair over on its side with a sudden, irresistible force. The Dutchman wrapped his gloved hands into the coils of the lariat and held on as he was dragged through the corral, rolling wildly in the wake of the yearling as it lunged ahead against the weight and resistance it now pulled. His lower body was limp and useless, but Johnny held the rope with a fierce determination that amazed us all. Two of the hands ran to the animal in desperate, lunging strides. One, heading the calf off and the other legging him up and over, off his feet to be worked.

Uncle Johnny chuckled, despite what he had just been through as two men, one lifting under each shoulder, brought him up and back into his battered old chair. He thanked them for their help and turned his attention back to the work unfolding around him. His shouted instructions and encouragement soon had things flowing smoothly again.

Years earlier, Johnny had started the herd buying canners and cutters from some of the Jersey herds at dairies in the area. He had saved and bought fine Beefmaster bulls from the breed's foundation herd on the Miller ranch southwest of Falfurrias, Texas. Johnny Friesen had now bred up a bunch of cattle that were as fine as any to be found. He was proud of his cattle, and I was proud of him.

The Dutchman had been raised near Premont by a hard working family. His father was a truck farmer who raised tomatoes and other vegetables that he hauled to market in the larger surrounding cities.

As a young man, World War II pulled Johnny into its embrace with countless other young men of his generation. He joined the Navy and served in the Pacific as an ensign on a submarine. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, depth charges repeatedly rolled off the hull of their ship. He was infinitely proud of that service and time in the Navy. He once told me a story of being on leave in Honolulu during the war. He and some other crew members were celebrating in a local bar. A group of marines came in demanding space and attention. Johnny asked the men who they thought they were? "United Stated Marines," came the proud reply!
"Oh," Johnny smiled. "You mean the Third Marines," he exclaimed.
"Whaddaya mean, the third marines?" the rowdy asked.
"Well," Johnny mused. "The First Marines are the Submarines," he smiled. "The Second Marines are the Merchant Marines, and the Third Marines are the U.S. Marines!" He hooted! A grand fight ensued that he obviously still remembered fondly.

Johnny was injured just after the war and paralyzed from the chest down, but he never slowed down. He farmed, ranched and lived life fully, never conceding a thing to his injury. He irrigated crops, plowed, bailed hay, worked cattle and drove himself wherever he needed to go. He was a devoted husband and raised a fine family and had grandchildren whom he loved dearly. The Dutchman was one of the people who touched my boyhood in a profound way. Uncle Johnny was, and remains, larger than life in my world. He was a man confined to a wheelchair, but never, in any way, defined by it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Island

My summer days were marked by warm gulf breezes sliding under billowing cumulus clouds. Breezes that blew over freshly cut fields of cane hay drying in the shimmering heat of a sunny July afternoon. While curing before bailing, the crushed stems gave off a scent that made me hungry for its sweetness. It was not unusual to find me chewing on a freshly cut stalk as I wandered those fields enjoying the vibrant world around me.

The breezes also carried sounds of cattle lowing at their calves, keeping them from wandering too far afield. Mixed in as well, were the piping, brassy whistles of male Bob White Quail in the frenzy of their mating cycle. That summons was returned by the short, plaintive chirps of the hens. It was common to observe two or three of these small, fierce cocks descend on a lady to compete vigorously for her favor. Aggressive posturing and open combat were often the direct result of these confrontations.

I quickly learned to imitate the calls of both the cocks and hens and was able to call in a hen or a couple of frantic males who, upon seeing each other, would charge into fierce battle and seem to forget the fickle damsel that had brought them together in the first place.

Summer temperatures would often top 100 degrees. Air conditioning was still relatively rare in those days. The best way to escape the heat was to go swimming. My friends and I did this as often as possible. There were various ponds scattered on our place as well as on neighboring ranches. They were a necessity for anyone running cattle in the brush country. Dad had a 90 acre pasture he had cleared on the west side of the place we called the lagoon as it was low and would catch and retain water when we had a good rain. After clearing most of the brush, he had a large pond or tank dug out in the lowest spot in the pasture. It was stocked with large mouth bass and catfish. We often camped out and fished on its banks under the dark velvet canopy of a huge Texas sky dusted with stars.

Hurricane Beulah came through and transformed our tank and dam completely. It became a horseshoe shaped island in the middle of roughly half a section of water! The waters surrounding our island ranged from ankle to some six feet in depth. The boggy bottom gave the water a murky grey-brown texture and provided fodder for mud fights of huge proportions. The island became our base of operations through that wonderful lazy summer.

We structured a primitive raft from the ancient sideboard of an abandoned trailer. Flotation was made possible by lashing empty oil drums beneath each end of the vessel. It was a very unstable craft and would overturn with great frequency. This was no real problem as we loved being wet anyway. However, as we learn in life, trouble is always lurking around a dark corner.

An early rendezvous had been called early one Sunday morning. Slipping away from the house, I answered the roster in my church clothes. During the course of the meeting, a short voyage around the island was suggested and agreed upon. Wearing my dress clothes made me a bit hesitant to board, but a vote of all hands present and solemn assurances that great care would be observed overrode my concerns.

Todo, Grant and Buster were already on the deck and I soon joined them. The morning was beautiful. Several trees rose mutely from the surface, maintaining a lonely vigil over the surrounding waters. These reflected in the rippling, golden light of the newly risen sun dancing on its surface.

As we poled the raft through the glassy surface, a water moccasin glided across the bow with a graceful see-sawing motion, leaving a delicate rippling wake in its path. Buster rose from his kneeling position on the deck with a look of open wonder on his face. He extended his right arm, right hand and index finger shaking furiously, and shouted "Look," loud enough to raise the dead.

I noticed the even line of the horizon begin to shift. When it was closing on a forty-five degree angle, I realized that all hands had abandoned ship. As the raft continued to tilt, I sensed that she would soon complete her roll. I lunged at a nearby tree limb in a frantic, hopeless effort to stay dry.

I caught that limb and hung on for dear life! Within a few seconds my fingers were going numb and I realized that my legs were submerged to my knees. Resigned that there was no escape, I released my hold and slid beneath the surface to join my friends.

We caroused and played shamelessly for twenty minutes or so before the reality of my situation really set in. Emerging from the water, filled with remorse, I chastised Buster. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. After all, he said fate had sent the snake to us and who could argue with fate?

I tried to be truly repentant in church that sultry Sunday morning. I knew that my mother's limits of patience had been severely tested once again. An occasional drop of sweat rolled down my neck into my collar. Hot air in the sanctuary recirculated around us through the constant hum of a large upright electric fan placed in the rear of the room. I noticed that folks smelled different in church clothes than they did in everyday ones, and I smiled at the memories of earlier that morning as the sermon droned on.

I recall the pastor saying, "The young pine knows the secrets of the ground. The old pine knows the stars." I retain no real memories of the rest of the sermon, but for some reason those words hung into me. I have thought of them from time to time over the years. I'm now long past those days of shuffling around with my hands crammed in my pockets and my shirt tail half out.

Reflecting on them now, I sometimes feel the reverse is true, at least where humans are concerned. As a boy, my child's eye would let me reach up, gathering in armfuls of those stars to sift through my fingers. That trick's not as easy to pull off as it once was.

I may not have known redemption that sultry Sunday morning, but there was an aura of contentment with me on that hard oak pew. Keeping it company was my mother's reproving glance, an occasional lopsided grin of my father's and the faint scent of moss and stagnant mud from the waters surrounding "The Island."

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Noise From The Basement

Dad and I had been left to our own devices... As was sometimes the case, the absence of my mother's mitigating influence allowed an interesting situation to evolve that would never have had a snowball's chance in her presence. Thinking back, it's amazing that she left Dad and I alone as often as she did.

Mother and little sister had driven from the farm to the city of Corpus Christi, Texas. They had a doctor's appointment and planned to use the balance of the day shopping for a new outfit or two.

After lunch, I was sprawled on the side porch of the house, gouging seeds from a slice of cool watermelon. Closing my eyes, I can still almost taste the icy sweetness of that melon from so many years ago, its juice trickling down my chin and being wiped away on the damp sleeve of my shirt, leaving a sticky film in its place.

Dad was gathering tools and supplies that were tossed in the back of his old Ford pick up truck to repair fences damaged by a yearling calf overcome by wanderlust. Alston Brown pulled up through the ruts leading to the house and braked. As he stopped a plume of caliche dust rolled over and past his truck. It was soon swept away in the strong, warm, coastal breeze. Alston owned the local hardware in town and contracted plumbing and electrical work for people in and around the nearby town of Premont.

His truck was a source of ongoing wonder to me. It was filled with a large variety of interesting things. Plumbing and electrical supplies were tossed randomly into the bed of the pick up. There were numerous tools, a lariat rope, a shotgun, magazines, a partial case of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco and countless other items of general interest as they might prove useful or of some value at some point in the future. I loved that truck, and busied myself taking inventory of new or previously overlooked items as he and Dad greeted each other.

Some time had passed before I noticed the two of them grinning, nodding and looking my way, knowingly. Dad gestured with a wave of his arm that I should join them. I bailed out of the bed of the truck and trotted over to find out what was up. I wasn't disappointed as Alston told me that he had come into possession of an extremely fine specimen of a young Javelina, or peccary.

These are small hog-like animals native to the dry, brushy coastal regions of South Texas.They also range into West Texas, Southern New Mexico and the desserts of Arizona. In the wild their diet consists of the roots of various cactus, snakes, insects and careless small rodents. They are very social and roam in groups or "packs" that range in number from three or four to twenty or so. Their sense of smell and hearing are excellent. The major handicap they live with is that of being extremely near-sighted. When a young javelina is captured, they tame very quickly and make excellent pets. A small one will readily adopt a human as its parent and become extremely affectionate and protective in their presence. However, they are also apt to inflict serious injury to any other animal or person perceived as a threat to their adopted parent or themselves.

It was Alston's judgment, with Dad's consent, that I would be the perfect choice to rear this little pig. I never understood how he convinced Dad that his choice was logical as well. All I knew was that he had been successful, and my boy's gratitude knew no bounds. We went into town, stopped at Alston's house and claimed my new pet. I was thrilled to see that the small female was quite gentle and instantly responded to my caresses and scratching on her stomach and behind her ears. We were inseparable from the first. Dad and I began to ponder where we could keep her on the way home. There was no suitable pen or enclosure for her.

We finally came up with an obvious, if temporary, solution. The farmhouse had a basement. It was nothing fancy, you understand. It had an earthen floor and was, for all practical purposes, largely unfinished. We both knew and agreed that Mother would never approve of this choice on a permanent basis, but that it should be alright as we expected to have a pen prepared tomorrow anyway. Surely, we could get away with it for one night.

Exchanging knowing glances, we realized the value of silence in this particular situation. Just for tonight, mum was the word! Pulling up to the house, we carried my new friend into the cellar and brought down the watermelon I had been working on earlier. She relished it hugely. It looked like this was all going to work out fine after all.

Swinging the cellar doors back into place, we saw Mom and sister return home within a very few minutes. Relieved that we had not been caught in the act, we followed the women into the house, and Mother began recanting events from the day as she prepared supper. She loved her trips to Corpus.

Somewhat later, the meal being set, we gathered around the table, and followed Dad's lead. Clasping hands and bowing our heads, Dad began to give thanks. In the middle of his first sentence a distinct sound rose, then faded slowly away. "Waaaaaank," it resounded. I cautiously cracked an eye open, glanced at Pop and saw his knuckles go white.

His eyes opened slightly and rolled in my direction. "What was that sound?" Mother asked. "Something outside, I guess," was my nervous reply. Dad, much to his credit, smiled, closed his eyes, and tried to continue. The sound rose again. "Waaaaaank," it reverberated!

Mother sat up very straight and slapped her palms loudly, flat down on the table top! As she rose, I could see the small veins protruding on her forehead. A muscle worked strongly in her firmly set jaw. I looked at Dad with wide eyes. This was going to be very bad.

"There's a #%$&*%! HOG in MY house!", She bellowed. I felt the blood drain from my face. I had never heard Mother curse before. It was no small surprise to discover that she could do a really bang up job of it! Glancing once again at Dad, I saw his left eye twitch slightly. Outrage was a woefully inadequate word to describe Mom's level of distress.

We finished supper in an aura of stony silence. Dad and I went through the mechanics of finishing a meal that we no longer had any appetite for. This was one time I was grateful not to be an adult.

In later years we would come to recall that evening to the sounds of laughter and good natured kidding. It was a time, however brief, that my mother lost her religion...and I discovered mine.

I did get to keep the pig...

Friday, September 5, 2008


I'm not sure just how old the farm house really is. Dad put its true age at somewhere over 75 years, but that was some 45 years ago.

We moved to the farm from the small coastal Texas plains town of Premont when I was three years old. Memories of living in town are few and, for the most part, indistinct. They consist mainly of pinching ripe, sweet strawberries from the yard of our neighbors, Wilmer and Estelle Schneider.

I had a pet Boston bull dog, Fritz. We got caught under the tool shed sharing a bone in the cool, damp soil in the crawlspace. Mother could see our eyes shining in the dark recesses beneath the floor as we took turns gnawing on the bone. No amount of threats or cajoling would get either of us to budge. A good scolding was one thing, but even at this early age I could appreciate a strategic advantage. I was not about to give up a secure hiding place and expose myself to the distinct possibility of having my bottom dusted. Fritz and I couldn't figure out just what was wrong with Mother, anyway.

My horizons expanded considerably with our move to the country.

I was a child used to struggling to escape the confines of a chain link fence around a small city lot. The farm presented infinite possibilities.

Dad had stopped plowing and stepped down from his tractor to visit with a friend in the heat of a lazy summer afternoon. I worked my way over to the tractor while he and Alston Brown exchanged greetings. Even then, I had come to love the rich smell of freshly turned earth, watching the roil of soil play out behind the plow. As Dad settled into his conversation with Alston, I crept beneath the huge wheels, pulled myself aboard, ground into first gear and headed for the back forty, leaving an erratic set of wonderful rich smelling furrows in my wake. I was a real farmer! Dad kept a much closer eye on me and the key to the tractor in his pocket after that.

With the passage of a few years, I came to accept the constraints of public school with some degree of resignation. When the final bell rang to free us for the balance of the Fall afternoons, those hours were filled in the pursuit of jackrabbits or quail with an old Remington single shot 22 that Dad had passed on to me from his boyhood. He had first hunted with it as a boy in 1927.

Various friends would accompany me on these outings, and it is a great source of pleasure that most of us are still in contact with each other despite the passage of considerable time. I was no more or less bloodthirsty than the boys I grew up with and we all dearly loved hunting and anything to do with the outdoors. It is a passion that I retain to this day.

One of my favorite quarries in those days happened to be rattlesnakes. They were plentiful, and the chance of an encounter with one was a constant possibility. I was always bringing snakes home. I would skin them and salt the hides. After curing, I would work Neetsfoot oil into the brittle, salty skins and sell them for belts and hat bands.

My interest in wildlife went well beyond simple hunting. I wanted to learn all I could about the variety of creatures inhabiting the world of my youth. As a result of that curiosity, I came to rear and possess a menagerie of animals. These included raccoons,deer, cottontail rabbits and javelina. The latter got me into, by far, my most serious fall from grace, in the eyes of my mother, that I was to experience for many years to come.

You know, that might be as good a place to start fanning these embers as any. You will see that I had a pretty fine childhood.
I hope I never grow out of it...