Friday, April 29, 2011

Caught Up In The Moment

We're pedaling through miles of  open land at the LBJ ranch. Just us and a couple of herds of  meandering cattle and skittish deer and antelope.  It's a storied land in Stonewall, Texas, visited by the dignitaries and movie stars of my youth.

I keep reminding myself that I'm actually here, here on the ranch, when suddenly, around the curve, I see it. The House. The Texas White House.

We park our bikes and queue up for a guided tour inside the house. Inside history. I'm so excited.

Our guide, a park ranger named Ben, who knew Lady Bird personally, leads us to the porch.

And there they are. The rocking chairs.

The ones I clearly recall from my youth. The ones in the famous picture of Johnson and Nixon.  We walk by and I yearn to touch those chairs.

The first room we enter is LBJ's office, with period pieces from the '60s, the phones, typewriters and a new  gizmo called a remote control for the TV. I'm time traveling. 

Suddenly, I smell cigarettes. Just a whiff. And I see ashtrays on all the tables. I know LBJ smoked incessantly, but could the odor linger nearly 40 years later? Hmmmm.

The ranger feeds my curiosity by saying often, at night, when he's locking up, he feels something in the room. And he thinks about all the powerful people who passed through here, about the Kennedys, Nixon, J. Edgar.

When the tour ends, about 25 minutes later, I'm still back in the day. And I want to thank the park ranger for taking me there. So I walk around the corner and find him, smoking a cigarette, crashing my time machine.  

I giggle privately, and head back to today, where odors don't linger for 40 years and where my bike awaits the ride home.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Face to Face With A Longhorn

We're hiking along a circular trail through wildflowers, grasses and cockleburs to see "The Johnson Settlement." It's in Johnson City, Texas, and it's where President LBJ's grandfather and great uncle started their cattle droving business during the Civil War.

Before our walk, I'd read where the boys made a fortune off cattle they never owned. They'd find unbranded cattle wandering the Texas plains, herd 'em up and move 'em on to market in Kansas. Along the famed Chisholm Trail.

Easy money.

The wandering cattle came from herds belonging to ranchers off fighting the war. No one was home to herd up and brand the calves, so the babies just grew up on the land, and wandered right into the hands of entrepreneurs like the Johnson boys.

Legal, but still, easy money.

So I'm thinking about those cows and the boys who just whisked them up and sold them, when we walk into a clearing and, voila, the settlement. We find a log cabin, some barns, a windmill and ... Wow! Two Texas longhorns. Within spittin' distance!

I've never been this close to a longhorn. I'm so close, I could touch them. So I try.

I walk up to the fence, and the black and white guy looks up. I whistle, snap my fingers and put my hand through the fence. And I talk friendly. "Here, boy. Here, boy."

Look! He's walking toward me. Man, those horns are huge! So long!

My dog Jacob, a large standard poodle, steps back away from the fence as the steer gets closer.

"It's OK, Jacob." I assure him.

Then WHAM! MAN! The longhorn slams his left horn right through the fence, and whacks Jacob on the side of the face. Jacob yelps (more startled than hurt) and backs off. I don't back off and WHAM SLAM, the longhorn tries crashing through the fence at me. He maneuvers those massive sabers deftly and bangs my arm briefly as I jerk it away.

Now Jacob and I both jump away from the fence. And the longhorn settles down.

I notice that as long as we keep our distance, he keeps his attitude peaceful. So we keep a big distance.

As we amble far away from the longhorn and through the rest of the settlement, reading historical makers and peering into doors, I start thinking about those Johnson boys. And if they ran across longhorns like the one we just met, then I'm thinking they earned every penny they got.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Colorful Dog Tale

I'm waking back from the laundry room at Padre Balli Country Park (Padre Island, Texas) and see a tiny, 40-something woman zigzagging across the RV park.

She's not much taller than a bar stool and is trailing a monstrous white dog on a thin wire leash. The dog's weight is so mighty he waddles, and the woman can do little more than follow in his meandering path. Which is heading right for me.

I say "Hi."

The dog stops walking and this woman starts talking. Fast. About how she was going to do laundry today, but noticed I was busy at mine, so she went grocery shopping instead. Yaddada Yaddada.

I'm enjoying her manner of speech. She's from Houston and her words roll one into the other, liltingly. It's lovely. Each well-formed word morphs into the next quickly, without hesitation, without corruption.

When she stops, I want to hear more, so I ask about Mr. Waddles, who must, I think, be quite old.
Never did I expect this story:

          Storm, his name, is a 9-year-old wolf/huskie mix trained in Afghanistan as a munitions sniffer. He saved lots of lives there, and got a Purple Heart.
          After his military service, he was used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and helped locate the bodies of 133 people. His owner, a U.S. Army Colonel, is friends with Donna, her name, and gave her the dog when he could no longer take care of him.
         And, Donna rattles on, Storm's not fat nor does he waddle because of his weight. His skeletal fame was altered, she says, as a pup during munitions training. He was walked on a short, tight lead, that held him back so he could feel trip wires. So, he learned to waddle.

It's getting dark, so we part with plans (that we broke) to have coffee in the morning.

Now, I don't know how much of this is true. I can't confirm a thing on the Internet. But I do know Donna and her husband love this dog, and use his image as their company logo. So I took a picture of the logo. That much is true.

Mystery Finds Me

My mind's all a-flutter with the history and the humor I find in Comfort, Texas (pics).

The small town is just a chapter in the state's storied Hill Country, a huge, beautiful landscape that billows west from the San Antonio/Austin megalopolis like a deep, refreshing exhale. That breath is full of little towns, big ranches, ghost towns and nearly empty places. It's populated with people, longhorns, a gazillion goats, some camels, buffalo, antelopes and what game hunters call "exotics."

But Comfort has more. It has a mystery. Involving me.

First I find the history: We park Otto in front of a burned-out stone building that has "Peter Ingenhuett" barely legible on the nameplate.

Then we walk past other buildings so old and so well preserved, they're on the National Register of Historic Places. Each building wears a badge of Historic Places honor, along with a plaque detailing why. It's like the whole town's preserved, and, unfortunately, partially empty. For Sale signs hang on building after limestone building -- the town's first blacksmith shop, first saloon, first this or that.

I see where Peter Ingenhuett was the town's first postmaster, and owned a lot of property. His name appears on lots of the plaques as well as that burned out building.

Then I find the humor. A barber shop near the end of the street bears it's own badge from the "State of Mind 'Histerical' Committee." The plaque reads: "On March 2, 1836, Texas declared her independence from Mexico ... and this building was not here yet."

I laugh. Read the sign again. Laugh again.

And then, the big mystery.

I look down on the ground and at my feet (on a windless day) I find a folded, 8-by-10 piece of paper singed around the edges. Like it survived a fire. I pick it up. Open it. And find it's an original shipping order, dated June 16, 1925, for 4 bundles of galvanized pipes for $600. For PETER INGENHUETT!!

This is an original document. Worthy of a place of honor in this town's museum. What's it doing at my feet? On a windless day? When nearly the whole town is closed for Easter?

I look around and there's no one here. Nobody. Just me, Allen and this historic document. So I scoot up the street to the open-for-business antique store across from Peter's burned-out place and ask: When was the fire? Thinking, maybe, last night.

Five years ago.

So, I wonder, as I walk slowly back to Otto, where did this scrap from the past come from and why did it find me?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Egg-citing Enough, for Easter

I'm standing in line at Walgreens to buy AA batteries when I notice the unusual heftiness of the man in front of me.
He wears a muscle T-shirt (popular down here in Texas) that stretches over his pot belly. The tiny drugstore shopping cart exaggerates his girth. And then, in that cart, I see a dozen "eggs." Not really eggs. But something I've seen marketed greatly over the past week or so, labeled "Cascarones."

Mr. Burly leans over to the cashier and they exchange a few words in Spanish. Gracefully, he dips his bigness out of line toward a pyramid -- and I mean TALL pyramid -- of these "eggs" and stacks four dozen under one massive arm, then two dozen more in his hands.

These "eggs" aren't still food, because they aren't refrigerated. But I have no idea what they are or why this large man needs dozens of them.

So, when it's my turn at the cashier, I ask.

She tilts her cute little teenage head and smiles a timid little smile.

"They have confetti inside," she says. "We crack them open on each other's heads."

Crack 'em? Heads?

"It's fun," she raises a shoulder to her ear, and giggles, then confides: "Especially on someone who doesn't like their hair messed up."

Crack an egg on my head? Cover me with confetti? It sounds like fun, especially if I get to watch a bunch of giggly kids go a'crackin'.

But, I say to the cashier, "I never heard of such a thing."

"Really?" Her little mouth turns pouty and her dark brown eyes become saucers. "Well, I'm from Michigan and we do it there. I thought everyone has Cascarones."

The great cultural divide of youth.

I remember thinking everyone ate peanut soup on Thanksgiving, got apples in their Christmas stocking and had to hunt for their Easter baskets.

So I guess it's a Mexican thing, because Corpus Christi has lots of Mexican Americans and my cashier is Mexican-American, too.

And as I drive home, I see makeshift egg booths popping up on street corners, selling the decorated, filled eggs for less than  $2 a dozen. And Easter is just a few days away.

At home, I Google "cascarones" and find even Martha Stewart knows how to make them. And although they have Italian roots, they're cracked open mostly on Mexican heads. At Easter. For luck.

Perhaps I'm the only one who didn't know ...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Sea Turtle Adventure, Well, Almost

I'm sitting on the beach reading Agatha Christie's "The Moving Finger."
But I can't concentrate.
Up the beach, about a quarter mile, I see two Turtle Patrol dune buggies and a handful of people hanging out. Just hanging out.
I turn back to my book.
Starting in April, the Turtle Patrol volunteers down here at Padre Island National Seashore drive back and forth along a 20-mile stretch of beach looking for momma sea turtles to come ashore to lay their eggs. When they find a momma and subsequently her nest, park rangers come and pluck away the eggs, carrying them to an incubator where, Lord willing, the eggs hatch.
When the eggs hatch, the babies are reared to a young age then let lose into the Gulf of Mexico.
I look up again and wonder. Is there a turtle?
I turn a page. But, obviously, Agatha and her mysteries can't hold my attention because I'm watching what I think might be a sea turtle sighting. Catching, collecting, or whatever.
So I tuck Aggie in my beach bag and walk up to the crowd.
What I find is no turtle, but, frankly, it's almost as good. I find a young park ranger, in his mid-twenties, bubbling with excitement because today he spotted his first girl around noon and ended up collecting 101 eggs.
I don't think I've ever seen a 20-something man smile that big or that long. He's absolutely giddy. So we ask him lots of questions, about his momma turtle (a returnee ... she was tagged in 2009), the condition of the sea (turtles like it windy and it's very windy today) and the quality of the water (any oil out there?)
He avoids the oil question.. "We were told to just say 'no comment' when asked about the oil, the tar," he says.
"But why?" I ask.
In case, he says, someone from the media sneaks in for a quote, or an undercover agent from the oil company is out checking on what's being said about them. It's just safer, he says, to have no comment.
Last year the park rangers told me the tar I found on the beach was naturally occurring tar, up from the ocean's depths.
This year they say "No comment."
A mystery.
Now where did I put Agatha ...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nancy To the Rescue

It's after midnight and it's time to shower and brush my teeth.

I open the door to the women's washroom at Padre Island National Seashore and I see movement. A fleeting movement. On the floor. Not the kind of movement caused by the wind picking up a paper towel someone left behind. A skittering kind of movement. By something small and low to the ground.

Oh, gee. There's a critter in here. I follow the path of the skitter, pushing open the door of the first toilet stall. Nothing.

I move on to the second stall and place my palm on the door. I'm not afraid. This thing won't launch itself at my face.

So I push. And there, I see it, zipping under the divide into the third stall. A crab. A ghost crab actually. And he's no bigger around than a tennis ball. He's quite flat, though. And transparent gold.

And scared. And totally out of his element.

These guys come out at night (ergo the ghost name) and hate the light. So this poor thing must be in a panic.
And I know I have to save him. Because earlier today, a family triumphantly killed a rattle snake. Killed him. Why? Because he lives here. Where they decided to visit for a while. He wasn't threatening anyone. He was sunning himself. Where they could see him. And that got him dead.

So I didn't want them to see Marley's ghost (yes, I named him) dead. I also didn't want Marley to meet the 17 junior high school students from a Montessori School in Dallas, who are sleeping on the beach. Imagine the screams! And it'd get him dead, too, just like the rattler.

So I get Allen and he holds the bathroom door open (he's standing behind it, hiding) and I get to rustling. I move to the rear of the washroom, further inside than where Marley is, and bluster my way toward the door. He skedaddles (sideways ... that's his forward) away from me, just like I hoped, and and now he's almost free. Then ACK! He ducks behind a couple of crumpled up paper towels, under the sink, way in the corner.

That means I have to crawl on the floor, on my hands and knees, and get my hands within inches of Marley's pinchers to pluck his shelter away so I can rescue him.

I need tongs, or a pole. AH! I have my toothbrush. And my toothpaste, which is longer than my toothbrush.

So I kneel, crawl and reach, using the end of the toothpaste tube to crunch down the paper towel and drag it away.
Poor Marley. He's flattened himself into the corner and is now the size of a quarter. And he's not moving.

So I get my bath towel and flick it at him several times. Now he's mad.

Out comes those pinchers and he scissors the air as he runs away from me, toward the door, out into the night, to freedom.

Yea, Marley! He's alive and free.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Great Dad and a Great Air Show

We're at an air show. With lots of macho Texans wearing their cowboy boots, sporting their tattoos, standing tall with sultry women hanging off their arms. And lots of families with kids, Vietnam Veterans. Current military men and women in combat camouflage.

This  is a big show, one  that celebrates the 100th anniversary of Naval aviation and thunders through the sky above the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. And it's free.

We're watching amazingly skilled flyers recreate the sounds of World War II as they motor about the heavens in B-25 bombers, a Curtiss-Wright sb2c (its nickname is flashier - Helldiver), and the bentwing Corsair. We're awed as the massive hulk of  Fat Albert (a Lockheed-Martin c-13ot Hercules) lifts itself skyward slowly, without groaning.

Barnstormers entertain and frighten us as they loop-de-loop and engage themselves in screw-driver turns across the skies, cut power and  nose-dive toward Earth.

Contemporary fighter jets wow us with speed and sound.

Momentarily, I'm just as entertained by the family in front of us. The dad's model-perfect, and stand more than 6-feet tall. He wears a white muscle T-shirt and baggy, dusty bluejeans that tumble out cowboy boots. He sports a tattoo of Frankenstein on the rear side of his upper left arm and a tarantula opposite it on the right. He's sucking a lollipop and -- this is what's so entertaining -- he's sitting in his little boy's stroller.

Yup. This hulk hunk of a man is wedged in a kid's stroller. Just sitting there, watching the show, sucking on that sucker.

Six kids swirl around him, playing ball, gigging, plopping down on a blanket. He breaks his skyward concentration easily to offer up a juice box. Another kid gets a sippy cup. He unfolds one of his long arms and hooks in his little boy,  smears suntan lotion on his face, then lets him go. He tends to those kids just as easily as he sits in that stroller.

I need to stop staring. It's getting rude. So I take a picutre (above) to remember the scene, and look up again and enjoy the show, the one up there in the sky.

And it's a big one. We stay for hours.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Boating Adventure Captured from Shore

I'm sitting in my lawn chair next to Otto, our motorhome, reading. Now and then I look up to watch the waves curling toward shore at Padre Island National Seashore. It's really, really windy with lots and lots of waves.

Actually, I'm looking up a lot, because I don't like the book. It's a real crime story, "The Innocent Man," written by John Grisham, who usually writes fiction. I like his fiction better.

So, I'm looking up a lot, out of boredom, out to sea, watching the waves. And suddenly I see something I've never seen in the three winters I've spent here. A sailboat. And in this wind?

It looks odd, like it's spinning, or something. So I drop my book and grab my binoculars.

Yup. It's a boat. And it's spinning. Not wildly, but it's dosey-doeing with the waves. And its main sail is flapping, not billowing, and it looks like another sail is dragging in the water.

What do I do? This boat is in trouble. Holler help?

I run to the camp host (a boater); he's not home. I remember campers from Colorado Springs, Lin and Andy, who kayak a lot. So I run to their motorhome, where I find them inside, writing in their journals.

When I say "There's a sailboat in trouble," they leap out of their motorhome and, as if rehearsed, assume different roles.

Lin grabs a marine VHF radio and tunes to Channel 16, the international distress channel, while Andy snaps up his binoculars to assess the damage.

There's no cry for help, Lin says, holding the transister-sized radio over her head and bobbing around, hoping for good reception. Andy climbs on top of his picnic table and focuses in on the boat.

He says the sailor's lost his jib (the big sail I saw flapping), but he's fashioned a much smaller sail behind it (probably the one I saw floating in the water earlier). And he's righted the boat to sail evenly.

We watch as the boat continues north and applaud the sailor's skill. He's got things under control. No need to call the Coast Guard. Crisis averted.

Excitement over. So I head back to Otto and see that awful non-ficiton book, its pages still flapping in the wind.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Beach Environmentalism 101

It's Man vs. Nature. Guess who's winning.

We're sitting at the beach at Padre Island National Seashore watching two men, a dump truck and a backhoe make a mess in the sand. They've already shoveled seaweed (mixed with a lot of sand) into mounds, much like Northerners plow the snow in a paring lot. And now they want to move the mounds. So they've brought in the big guys to haul 'em off.

Three, four, five times the backhoe dumps the weed mixture into the bed of the truck (spilling a lot in the process). Then the truck drives its cargo of beach stuff off the beach (I don't know where it went from there), all the while more seaweed rolls in with the tide.

It's what happens here every year, this carpet of seaweed 10-20 feet wide. It's no surprise that seaweed clogs the beach from March through June. It's just what happens.

But people don't like it; tourists complain; local businesses suffer because who wants to play in seaweed.
So Man battles Nature.

After dinner, we return to the beach, and it's quiet. The big equipment is gone, but its scars radiate and undulate out from the remining heap of seaweed and makes the whole thing look like a giant octopus sand sculpture. Or the real thing, washed ashore, just not ready yet to die.

I also see big ruts in the sand. Deep, cavernous ruts. I had heard earlier that the dump truck had gotten stuck and had to be towed out. Makes me smile. Because it's like nature getting back at us for for our impatience. We can't wait for her to do her job of cleaning up the beach, of drying out the seaweed, then blowing it apart wth her fierce wind, thus scattering the remains throughout the dunes.

No, we go in with our metal shovels and deisel-powdered, 10-wheeled trucks to cart the stuff away. So she sucks us in. And then stands by to watch as we squirm our way out.

She's giggling right now. Because she's winning.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

An Evening At The Water's Edge

We take our coffee and walk to the end of the boardwalk, about a dozen yards from the ocean, where pelicans and seagulls fish for their evening meal.

The sun's setting and I realize we've lived here for more than a month, and this is the first time we've done this. The first time we've had our evening coffee on the beach.

And it's peaceful. We're alone. Except for the wind. It's pretty strong and we suspect it'll get stronger.

We sit on top of a picnic table and watch the pelicans crash into the gulf, fishing. First one, then another. And a woman walks by.

She stops to chat. About birds. We see a V-line of birds fly by and a lone cormorant brings up the rear. The woman delights in this. We talk birds and dogs and in the midst of our conversation another couple drops by. They pull a picnic table alongside ours and sit there, along with us, watching the pelicans dine. We talk about kayaking, RVing, coffee, islands and New Orleans.

Soon, the first lady leaves and is replaced by a man, this one with a dog. We talk dogs, rescues and the wind. We're suppose to get 7-foot waves tonight, he says. Unusual. For here.

Soon, two more people walk up from the beach and I notice the sun is gone. And so is our coffee. And so is our peace. Because it's more like a party out here. Because where it was just me and Allen a few minutes ago, is now all these people, along with the birds, the waves and the wind.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Next Time, I'll Pass On The Mud

Gee, I'm hot.

Dripping with sweat after a two-mile walk on the beach with our dogs.

I climb into our motorhome and turn to sit when Patty walks up.

"I've been looking for you for an hour!" she whines. She's a minute of a woman, with short curly reddish hair, a deep tan and barely a wrinkle. And she's smoking.

I met Patty late last night, at the bathhouse. She was brushing her teeth when I walked in and she was wowed by my hair. (So she says.) She loves my hair. (So she says.) And, she says, she has just the product I need to keep it beautiful during the day. She'll bring some by in the morning.

She also managed to tell me, in those few moments together, standing in the restrooms, that she's 60 years old, from New Hampshire, and is staying with an elderly couple (in their 80s), who are leaving on Sunday.

Well, it's now Saturday morning and that's why she's been looking for me. To fix my hair. (Or so I thought.)

So I go outside, sit at a picnic table and cringe. Because Patty scoops up what she calls mud from a little pot and scrunges it into my hair. I hate this.

I'm sweating and sandy and sticky and now this woman smears mud in my hair. (I now look like the" Flying Nun," only too heavy to take flight.)

Patty yabbers the whole time she's scrunching and poofing my hair. (Why did I agree to this?) About the things she wants to see and do here in Corus Christi. About how she has three more days before her plane leaves and how she needs a place to stay because her friends are leaving in the morning.

"I guess," she whines, "I could stay in my car."


I think this woman wants to bum a bed off us. I think she's trying to butter me up through my hair.

"Yes," I say. "Lots of people stay in their car."

Mostly, I can tell the difference between a person in need and one in greed. And Patty, I think, guesses I can, too. Because she leaves soon after I fail to offer her a place to sleep.

But she's coming back later, she says. And I'm going to wash out my hair.

Not Your Average Day Shopping

(Leah, This one's for you.)

My grocery list is small. Only 10 items and I'm out of the store, on my way back to the beach.

Allen drops me off near the front door and we both see a jaw-dropping sight: a gazillion and two high school kids (actually 220, I learn later), all wearing blue shirts and many grabbing shopping carts to head into the store ahead of me.

Yes, it's a monster grocery store.

I grab my own cart and follow them inside where a sea of blue spills everywhere. Except in the fresh veggies and fruits, where a dozen or so older people stand and stare.

As do I.

What I see are kids having a great time, shopping for groceries. Laughing, rushing here and there. Checking lists. Being very polite. I notice an adult wearing the same blue shirt that says "Plano East High School" on the front and "Spring Break 2011" on the back. So I ask. What's up?

The answer makes me smile.

All these kids are members of the Plano East High School Marching Band and are in Corpus Christi this weekend for the state competition. They rode in three buses for eight hours to stay in condos that have kitchens, but no food.

So, the kids came up with an idea. They formed teams and plan to do the Iron Chef thing to feed themselves and their band leaders and chaperones. The winners get to be, well, the winners.

The menus? I noticed a lot of macaroni and cheese in those carts, hot dogs and pizza. Pepsi. Cereal. Oh, yum.

I grab my 10 things and head to the front where all 25 cashiers stand ready. As I head to the door, I see a blue wave rising. Let the competition begin.