Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Lesson on Verbal Warfare

She didn't answer his question.

I'm not shocked.

He's young, maybe 4 or 5. And adults tend to look right past young people. Not engage them.  Disregard them. Unless, of course, the people involved are special or the setting is FOR children exclusively.

Today's setting is not a kid environment. It's the elegant and recently restored Beauvoir (Beautiful View), the final home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

Two years ago, we'd sneaked a peak at it from the road and saw near devastation: A shell of a house with a partial roof and dangling shutters struggling to stand amid mountains of debris. She'd taken a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina. 

Today, we see a revival of her original beauty, thanks to $4 million from state and federal agencies.

We're on a group tour (about eight of us) in this beautiful mansion, built in Biloxi, Miss., before the Civil War. Our guide is a woman of about 45, who wears period clothing (post Civil War, about 1889) and smiles a lot. She tells us inside stories about the lives and loves of the first family of the Confederacy -- the only first family of the Confederacy.

Our walk from the front to the back door takes about 20 minutes because we've stopped at each of the rooms to hear about the way the people lived in this ocean-front summer cottage, about the severe damage caused by Katrina and the restoration efforts still going on today.

All the while, the little boy with piercing blue eyes remains attentive. He listens to the tour guide's stories, tilting his little head upwards to hear with his eyes and his ears. He's so well behaved. Respectful. Curious.

A little red wooden train on the carpet in the living room catches his attention. He turns to the tour guide and asks "Why is there a train in there?" Our guide responded, "It's very old." Then just smiles.


That's no answer. That's a dismissal. Why not just answer his question?

I'm fuming. This little boy is, after all, a paying part of our tour group. He's listened to everything she said and has walked quietly with us on the whole tour, never touching a thing (well, he DID touch Jeff Davis' grandfather's grandfather clock, built in the 1700, and the oldest piece of furniture in the house ... but his mom was quick to catch and release.) 

A non-answer like "It's very old" insults that little boy. 

I start to speak up, to reprimand that tour guide in front of everyone for ignoring the child when I see his mom whispering in his ear. She does it quietly, respectfully. The boy nods his head. He likes the answer. He skips out the back door and down the garden steps.

I take a deep breath and realize my plan to right that wrong with a public tongue lashing was as rude as the original wrong.

So next time (and there will be a next time because adults often disregard our kids) I'll take a lesson from our mom and not draw my verbal sword in public. Instead, I'll kindly whisper in the offender's ear.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Pizza Pie Anthology

The pizza I grew up with came in a box (with a bag of floury stuff and a can of red sauce)  from Chef Boyardee. It was salty and doughy and we gobbled it up at slumber parties, along with M&Ms, bottles of Coke and chips and dip.

Pizza was not a meal. It had no food value. It was just water, flour, salt and the red stuff we poured out of that can.  I lived in West Virginia and we did not eat pizza for dinner. We snacked on it. At parties. Because it was fun for kids to make. From that box mix.

When I moved to Pennsylvania, I was in my 20s, and like me, pizza was growing up. Places called Victory Pig and Pizza L'Oven retrained my thinking because the pizzas they made were substantial. They were a meal. They had real food like pepperoni, chicken, ham and a variety of vegetables and fruits swimming on top of a luscious, thick, rich tomato sauce. And melted cheese. We can't forget the cheese.

The dough serving it all up was crunchy outside, soft inside, with a taste as refined as a baguette.

Over the years, while living in New York,  I've enjoyed exquisite pizzas at places such as Twin Trees, Sardo's, Gina and Joe's and even Pizza Hut.

Tonight we dine at Pizza Hut, back in the South, in Hammond, La., and I'm happy because I'm hungry, for a meal, a sumptuous pie we can eat lots of now, then some of later as a snack. Yum. The best of my youth and my grown-up years.

Our waiter seats us a table under a TV showing a national cheerleading competition out of Orlando. Thank goodness. Because after we order (a hand-tossed crust loaded with pepperoni, mushrooms and sausage), we wait about 40 minutes for our pie.

Finally, it arrives. But what he serves is not our grown-up pie. Thin, doughy crust tastes like a big communion wafer that holds a very browned cheese smothering a few shriveled mushrooms and squiggles of sausage. We can't find (or taste) any pepperoni. The smattering of red must be the sauce. Hard to tell.

We don't complain. It took 40 minutes to get this pie and we are determined to eat it. But it's dry, and salty. As it cools, the cheese turns leathery.

We eat about half before we surrender to this retro pie, the pizza of my youth.

Here in the South.

Is that Chef Boyardee in the kitchen again? 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Suspicious Activity in The Hood

We see a lot of park rangers around here on Padre Island National Seashore. But not the like ones swarming the car next door.

These guys mean business, talking into their hands-free walkie-talkies, toting big sidearms (Glocks, maybe?). Some ride in those big white pick-up trucks; two slither out of an unmarked Ford with red, blue and green lights splashing back and forth across the rear window.

Something's going down and I'm dying to know what.

They're blocking in my new neighbors, a bunch if teens (well, I'm guessing they're teens) tent camping on the beach. They've been gone all day and just drove back in, parking their big, black Lincoln Nagivator in the empty lot next to ours.   Six or seven of the kids in the SUV spill out and start unpacking their gear (including fishing poles)  while the cops talk to them.

No one seems concerned. But the cops stay a long time. Are they searching their car? Looking for drugs? Terrorists??

I am so curious. I need an excuse to wander around outside, to ask questions, to root out the reason the cops (well, park rangers) are investigating my neighbors. Ah. A book. A book I can leave in the bathroom (that's where the book exchange is).

I grab "The Pilot's Wife" (by Anita Shreve) and walk outside, meandering toward the book drop. I ask a few people, "What's up?" Dunno, they say.

I ask a few more. "Dunno, either. But, let us know if you find out."

I drop the book off in the bathroom and turn to walk back to my motor home. A big park ranger (and I mean really big, like football player big) pulls his huge white ranger pickup truck right next to me and leans out the window and says, with a big Texas drawl, "You seem concerned."

Bingo! This guy'll know what's what!

"This face is not a face of concern," I smile, trying to joke my way into getting my answers. "This is a face of curiosity."

"Well, they were speeding. Through the park. That's all." Then he drove away.

Speeding. Speeding. All this activity for a speeding ticket? Do I buy this?

I turn back to the folks who want my report and file my story.

"Don't believe 'em," one guys says.

"It's just a front," the woman remarks. "Something else has to be going on."

"It's a coverup," the third guys says, then cracks a smiles and whispers:


The Beach Awakens From Its Winter Nap

It's mid-March and I'm walking the beach and see lots of footprints in the sand.

Mingling with dog-paw marks and flip-flop prints, I notice remnants of children's feet, lots of lovely happy children's feet. I stop. I smile, wide-eyed. In awe. Because I've just witnessed something I've never seen before: A beach awaken from hibernation.

When we first arrived at Padre Island National Seashore, it was early February. And it was cold, windy. The beach population was two. Us. Well, four, counting our two Standard Poodles. The elements rushed everyone off. The sand was not smooth. It was dotted with tiny wisps of jagged sand ridges, each topped in black,  creating amazing geometric patterns.

The wind constantly worked to erase all prints, ever ours, to create those patterns.

Over the next few days, the wind calmed a little, and the fishermen joined us, adding their wader boots prints to our shoe prints and paw prints. Soon we noticed other prints in the sand, too, those of more people and more dogs. Necessary walks; nothing casual. Yet.

After a while, the tormenting wind turned into a gentle breeze (well, it does keep losing its temper from time to time, but mostly, it's a gentle ocean breeze). So joining the necessary walkers and waders were sitters, mostly women, the wives of the fishermen, who often walked the beach, looking for shells. Then, others, also shell seekers arrived. Casual walkers.

Today, as we walk the beach, the wind is at rest, the warming sun shines brightly and a melange of footprints mingles with ours. The beach is transformed, no longer bearing evidence of just fishermen, wives and dogs. It explodes with life, with people of all ages,  playing, swimming, chasing soccer balls and footballs (Here's a slide show; click on the slide show button top left, then click on the minus sign to change the time from 3 to 1 second in order to watch the toss. It's fun.)

Children shriek happily, running in and out of the waves. Teens and 20-somethings flirt. I see a beach wedding. Kids sing while sitting on top of cars. Others snowboard down the sand banks. There are lots of sand castles rising from the sand and kits taking flight. Fire pits under construction signal barbecues to come.

The beach is young again. Full of life. Vibrant, happy. Joyful. It has awakened from a long winter's rest. Ready to play again.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Heading South, On the Beach

Shovel. Check.

 Carpet. Check.

 Bucket, rope, check, check.

And lunch, water, towels. And a dishpan to carry the sea shells and sand dollars we find. 

It's 9 a.m. and we're ready, ready to drive down island, down about 60 miles to explore the rest of Padre Island National Seashore. Our goal: If we can't go all 60 miles, we want to AT LEAST frolic on both Little Shell Beach and Big Shell Beach.

It's not as easy as it sounds. The "road" we  travel is the beach (Highway -1). It's "paved" with hard-packed sand and soft sand (now you understand the supply list).

But we're driven to make it to the top (well, figuratively speaking.) So, we're off. 

And, "we" ARE driven, by my brave husband, Allen. The "we" are me and my two new friends, Sherry and Cindy (and Cindy's shitz tzu Bailey). Sherry (in a motor home) and Cindy (in a tent) travel the country alone. Well, not really alone; they both have dogs. My new girlfriends are 55 and 54, respectively, and smile, a lot.

Allen drives Sherry's Jeep and all goes well, for the first eight or so miles. The beach is littered not with debris, but with motor homes, kids playing, dogs running back and forth, and driftwood. We laugh, we smile. We joke.

We are unaware of the beast that lays in wait about 10 miles down until we slam into him, head, um, tire on.

The beast is the soft sand.

Allen captains our ship as we ride waves of that sand, up and down. He maneuvers around driftwood, and guides us through ruts so deep we hear the sand scrape against the Jeep's underbelly. Then we bounce over those ruts, like a jet ski crossing the wake.

Are those perspiration beads I see forming on his brow? 

Twice, Allen gets out to walk ahead, to check the viability of the "road." 

At 20 miles, we agree we can go no farther. Too soft. The beast wins. How deep are those ruts anyway? 12, 14 inches? Maybe 17?

So we turn back, our goal unmet. But, we're still smiling, still laughing, and still having a great time. We picnic on the gentler sand and search for small shells on Little Shell Beach. Cindy sheds her skirt (she wears a bathing suit underneath) and dips into the Gulf. Pictures here.

We return to the campground by 3 p.m. and unload the emergency supplies we never had to use (because Allen controlled the helm). And we vow to one day return to the high seas sands and dock at  Big Shell Beach.

Editor's note: According to the National Park's own Web site, we made our goal. Big Shell Beach stretches from mile 17 to mile 28. We made it to mile 20. So although we saw no big shells, we made it to Big Shell Beach. We made it. We made it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What About Bob

We're outside, puttering, when Bob hollers over. "When ya leavin?"

Bob's one of the hard-core anglers here in Padre Island National Seashore. He's been camped here or near here since November and fishes just about every day. Despite cold, wind and rain. And age. Bob is 71.

He leaves his waders outside to dry, so it always looks like there's another person over there at Bob's. And often, there is.

Bob's a people magnet. I looked up from my book one day and saw Bob climb out of his aging fifth wheel and start to work on something -- a bent fishing pole, a rusty generator, maybe he's filleting some fish. The next time I look up there are three other men there, one with a dog.

So today, Bob wants to know when we are leaving, because he wants to fish us some fish. (Look closely at the picture and you'll see the fish he just caught.) He offers the fish as a thank you for the chili I sent over the other day as a thank you for letting us hook up to his generator for a day. The thank yous never end here. It's kinda nice.

Bob says the chili (I notice his eyes start glistening) tastes almost like that that his wife had made for him -- the wife who died two years ago, just across the street, while the two of them were camping here. Lung cancer.

Linda Jean, was her name. She was his third and fifth wife (he married her twice). The others meant nothing, because combined, he and Linda Jean were married 36 years. Just two years before his wife died, his 18-year-old son Timmy died. In a car accident, while delivering newspapers. He says losing his wife was hard, but losing his son was fatal. He feels he died the day his son died. His son, his funny, gentle, loving son. The 300-plus people at his son's funeral gave Bob a stand ovation for his eulogy to his special son.

Bob says he doesn't believe in God because where was God for those two minutes Timmy needed him to save his life. Then he shows me letters from long-time friends who do believe in God. And send prayers his way. He has lots of friends and writes about 24 letters a month, just keeping in touch.

Bob unfolds his life to us in 20 minutes, all this while we stand here in the street. Eventually, I decline the offer of fish (Allen doesn't eat fish and I don't want the smell in our motor home) and walk back across the street. Then, and I don't really know why, I turn around and holler back, "We're here for four more days."

Maybe deep down I want to accept his thank you, for our thank you. Because, after all, Bob is so nice, and anyway, it's kinda nice when the thank yous never end. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Good Samaritan

Don (Sherry told me his name) has a big dog (Amigo, Sherry told me his name, too) who's a menace.

The year-old German Shepherd looks, acts and sounds vicious. And I don't say this lightly.

He barks, not a "hello, how are ya" bark. Not a "come play with me" bark. But an "I'll eat you alive" bark whenever we walk near him. And "near" is relative. He's feigned an attack when I'm 30 feet away or 15. Doesn't matter.

I and others in the campground talk about Don and Amigo. We complain about how loud the dog is, and how fearful we are of him. We gossip about how Don can't control the dog, and about how odd Don is anyway with a wild mop of curly hair. We see him on the beach, struggling to keep the dog under control. We walk circles around the two of them, never getting very close. We stay away.

Sherry stepped outside our crowd and unlike us, extended the hand of friendship to Don. Albeit cautiously, so Amigo didn't bite it.

Sherry spent time with Don, talked to him about how to train Amigo to be a better friend, a happier dog, so he wouldn't bark so much, so he wouldn't scare so many people. She gave Don some homemade brownies, drove him to the store, with Amigo chewing on her hand the whole time.

Don's a kind, gentle, intelligent man, Sherry said. His wife recently passed away. He's just in over his head with a dog he thought would grow up and out of the unruly behavior all by himself.

While the rest of us walked around this man and figuratively spat on him as he struggled, Sherry extended a hand to lift him up, to ease his pain.

 "A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way.
"When he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was.
"When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’
"Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?" He said, "He who showed mercy on him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Luke 10:30-37 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Fog Comes On Big Lion Feet

The TV newscaster wants me to watch the 10 p.m. news, so he headlines the biggest news of the day: Fog.




"The FOG returns," he stares right at me, warning me. "More at 10."

Fog. HA! The FOG is headlining the news down here in Corpus Christi.

Oh, I am so self-righteous.

Today, the FOG returns. Nearly all day.  I've never seen anything like it. It blankets the Earth. No color exists in my world. It's black, white and shades of gray. People resemble little gray carrots moving through a cloud. I see shadows where buildings used to be. Birds sitting on a fence look like knobs.

I hear the ocean, but cannot see it until I'm almost upon it. 
The fog blows in thick, like heavy smoke from a brush fire, everywhere. As in a Stephen King novel, it moves toward me, threatening to envelope me. Then it does. I see, feel and smell it wrapping its tendrils around me, overcoming me, encompassing me and everything around me.

I touch it back. It feels cold, damp, palpable. 

This is the kind of fog that headlines the news.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cigarettes Kill Books, Too

My new friend Sherry walks up to me with a green bag full of paperback books.

"Are you a reader?" she asks. Well, sure! I've read 13 books since Dec.13.

"Then here," she says. "Maybe you can find something in here you can read."

I'm more than just a reader.  I'm a collector. Well, a hoarder, really. I must have 2,000 books, half inherited from my father and the rest picked up at thrift stores, yard sales,, Barnes & Nobles, friends. I love books. 

But, ACK! Not these books.

I open the sack  and Phew! They stink. Like cigarettes. I'm a reformed smoker. The worst kind. I can't stand the smell of cigarettes. It sickens me. These books sicken me.

A smoker gave these books to Sherry, who now gives them to me because she's not fond of any of the authors (Harold Robbins, Belva Plain, John Lescroart, Anne Rivers Siddons, Maeve Binchy).

I've read nothing by any of these authors, never found a reason to be interested in these authors and own no other books by these authors, But, I'm a hoarder. A book hoarder. I need to keep these books. So I post a question on facebook: What can I do to get cigarette smell out of books? 

I MUST rescue these books. I NEED to keep them.

The sentiments pour in from my friends: Burn them, recycle them, just throw them away, baking soda, laundry sheets. 

I try laundry sheets and now the books stink like cigarettes and chemicals. We leave them outside overnight and still cigarettes claim them. 

There is no hope. No cure. Cigarettes kill.

So I pack them up in a sealed bag and head to the trash bin. On my way, I see two people, smoking. I offer them the books. I explain why, you know, about the smell. They open the bag and sniff. Smells fine to them.

So I essentially recycled the books, sparing them a sure death. And me the smell.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Letting Kids In On The Fun

I can't believe my eyes.

I'm sitting four or five rows up in  $20 "preferred seats" (actually, butt space on bleachers) at the National Professional Bull Riding Association's rodeo in Kingsville, Texas. I'm surrounded by Texans, whole families of Texans, whoopin' and hollerin,' clapping, standing, pumping their fists in the air (and chugging down huge cups of beer). 

I notice a darling little girl, about 6, decked out in pink -- a pink cowboy hat and pink chaps -- climbing on the fence, the only thing protecting her from those bucking, rocking, snorting bulls inside. Then I notice more kids, lots of kids, all looking like little cowhands and they're moseying on down toward that fence. The little boys wear black or plaid shirts, chaps and cowboy hats, just like their dads. The little girls look like their mommas, wearing cowboy hats, and vests, boots and belts all bedazzled in bling. Lots of bling. There are ribbons in their hair.

And then I see the darndest thing. Those moms and dads pick up their kids and drop them, DROP THEM like sacks of potatoes, over that head-high fence into the rodeo ring, that place where seconds earlier angry bulls snorted, bucked and rocked. What are they thinking? Why, some of bigger kids scramble up and over by themselves.

Soon there must be a 100 miniature cowboys and cowgirls milling about inside that ring.

What I see next, drops my jaw.

Three calves, cute little things with bows on their tails, charge into the ring. And those 100 kids? Round and round they chase those baby cows. The kids work like cattle dogs, moving those calves,  cutting them off from each other, all the while grabbing GRABBING for those bows on the little cow tails. The audience roars. It's bedlam in there. The calves kick, rock and buck and the kids dart, duck and charge. 

It doesn't take long, maybe three minutes, before three kids secure the treasured golden rings of calf chasing. For their efforts? They get $5. Enough for a pony ride.

The kids pant, gleefully, as they climb back over the fences to where moms and dads retrieve them. 

I gawk, still, at what I've just seen. And then applaud. Because no one stopped all the fun, worrying that it might be too dangerous. No one stopped the fun. Thank goodness, no one stopped the fun.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Spring Brake

Ah, the vagaries of youth, and the weather.

We're walking the dogs along the road that bisects the campground because a storm dares us to try, just try, to walk along the beach.

We did that a few days ago; we pushed past that weather bully and met its wall of 50 mph winds that blew us, our dogs, buckets of sand and an ocean of water all the way home (well, all the way back to our motor home.)

So, today, because we lost to that tyrant in the past, we stay off the beach, walk the road then turn to head home.

Ahead of us, we see a couple of college kids carrying sleeping bags and other stuff across the road to pack it all into the back of their car. Then we see more kids, climbing/struggling through the sand, wrestling with that thug, that tormentor I told you about.

"Hey, guys," I holler. "Were you the ones in the tents, on the beach?"

"Yes," the guy groans. "We give up."

Ah, the weather bully wins again.

So I chat for a while and learn there are eight of these kids from Texas State University in San Marcos  trying to live out their spring break dream of camping on the beach at the Padre Island National Seashore, enjoying the surf and the sun.

Instead, the winds billowed their tents all night and early this morning, the rain seeped through and they all got wet. And exasperated. And called it quits. Because the wind is relentless and the skies are gary and the Gulf of Mexico won't let anyone in to play.

And, anyway, one of the girls shyly admits, they noticed all the other people here in the park are, well, old. She grins her apology to me, one of the ones she consider, well, old.

So they're striking camp, but they've already shed their sadness. They no longer see this as a failed vacation. Instead, they've revamped  and plan to drive three hours north to San Antonio, where the mom of one of the kids will dry them off, cook their meals and pamper them.

So they are happy to be leaving, laugh at the memory they've just created and acknowledge the weather, tomorrow, should be swell.

Friday, March 5, 2010

One Man's Trash Is Often Just Trash

I'm walking my dogs (two Standard Poodles) on the county beach on Padre Island, Texas, (it butts up to the National Seashore) and I see a nail. So I pick it up.

Then I see another, so I pick it up, too.

I'm not infuriated at some careless Joe who dropped nails where my dogs or someone's child might step. Because I know how the nails got here. Well, I sort of know. 

You see, Padre Island is trash heaven. Because of the way the Gulf of Mexico ebbs and flows, trash from around the world washes up on the beaches. Mostly, the debris is worthless household trash -- soda pop bottles, plastic food containers, plastic bags, rope, balloons, and itty bitty swatches of plastic, cloth, glass, wood, metal and Styrofoam.

It's doubtful anything of value awaits my discovery. (Sherry: I Googled that John Adams dollar coin you found: Minted in 2007. Value? $1.) But, I keep looking, and pick up anything dangerous I find along the way. Like the nails.

So far, I have two nails in my hands, a rusted piece of metal that looks like an old bent coat hanger and a belt buckle.   Now I see more nails. I take a few steps and see a lot of nails, embedded in the sand. Far too many nails for me to pick up and tote away. So I stand and stare and begin to see, oddly enough, some beauty in the way the nails swirl randomly in the sand, a snapshot of chaos. 

So I take a picture. And I rethink what I think about all this trash.

It's worthless now, yes, but in the hands of creative people (the kind who turn found objects into art)  the debris becomes art. The trash becomes something of value.

I walk on, see more nails, bits of burned wood, then a dead duck,  a dead catfish and a dead jelly fish.

All thoughts of art end.

A Genuine, Generous Midwestern Kindness

Doris is at my front door. Well, it's a side door really, to my motor home. And, as is the custom in campgrounds, she doesn't knock. People don't knock on motor home doors, I've noticed.  They stand a few feet away and holler out "Are you there?" Or "Hello?"  Or as my friend Carolyn hollers, "Are you up?"

Doris hollers "Hi" so I know she's there.

When I answer the door, she holds a Mason jar of maple syrup up to me (she doesn't climb the three steps into my motor home; I'm standing at the top of the stairs and she's at the bottom, so she holds the syrup up to me).

And because she's holding it up, the sun tries to pass through it, and I see it's nearly opaque. The thick, rich amber  syrup is clean and pure, not a blemish floats in it. I know immediately how special this pint jar is.

Lowell, Doris' husband, taps his Minnesota maples in early spring and cooks the sap out in the woods until it turns into this delicious, naturally sweet treat. It's his hobby, he says, just like bird watching.

I met Doris and Lowell while bird watching (they rode in my car), and later, I invited them to use our Wi-Fi.

The syrup is a Thank You. A Thank You that far outweighs the favor, I'd say.

Tonight, we buy pancake mix.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Bunch Of Little Birdies

My girlfriends know I always volunteer to drive. I like to drive. I like the way my car feels with me inside. I fit in my car.

So I volunteer to drive me and three birders around Padre Island National Seashore to watch the birds. For four hours. We're part of a group of 13.

Before we go, George and Mary, the 70-somethings leading this group, deck us out in bird-watching gear: bright orange vests (so the birds see us coming?), walkie-talkies (in case someone gets lost, or is attacked?), binoculars (I know why we need these), bird lists and pens, all pulled from the trunk of their car.

I'm feeling like a bad fit here. The vest pulls around to my sides only, I can't work the walkie-talkie. And the bird list? Well, some of the names are familiar because I used to edit a bird column for my local newspaper. But the chit chat convinces me I'm with hard-core birders. They discuss the list with each other, point to names, share vignettes about the last time they saw this bird or that.

Clearly, I don't fit in. I'm glad I'm driving. 

So the little three-car caravan gets underway and minutes later, we land on the beach and spill out onto the sand, us in our orange vests, holding binoculars, lists, pens and walkie-talkies.

Yes, people stare.

"The birds down on the fence," Mary begins, "Are Forster's Tern. In winter plummage." 

Wow. They are beautiful birds, Bird's I'm familiar with. Last year, I took their picture (above) and I thought how unusual these little birds looked. So, wow. I know these birds.

"And the black-headed birds bunched up in the surf are laughing gulls." 

And they really laugh. HA! 

"What's the little round bird, up in the surf?" someone asks. (Ruddy Turnstone, Mary says.)

"And how about the other one, the one that keeps running away from the water?" (A Sanderling.)

And more questions, more pleas for identifications, lifestyles, habits. I take note of who's asking. He is. She is. And her. Why, I'm not so alone here. More than half of us don't know what we are doing, except we are having fun and learning a little about birds.

So I'm as good a fit with this group as I am in my car, which is where we return time and time again throughout the next four hours, driving from spot to spot, documenting sightings of 33 different kinds of birds. Asking questions. Laughing. Looking silly as we stand in the road (AHA! The orange vests!) peering all which ways through the binoculars for the bird (a hawk, falcon or harrier or something) that just flew away. And talking to each other on the walkie-talkies, helping each other locate the birds (at 4 o'clock, just below the log ... see the log? Well look to the left, then down.)

And, of course, making friends. And plans to do more of this stuff later, together.