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Walking

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Since moving to Wyoming some two years ago, I found that the local community college will let us Senior Citizens take classes, tuition-free.  Since the only alternative was going to work, I decided to take advantage of the offer and try to keep the few remaining little gray cells sharp. I began college in 1968, and, with a short hiatus to serve gallantly on the Frontiers of Democracy as a Trained Marine Killer-Typist, continued until about 1973, changing my major some eight times.  When the GI benefits ran out, I was forced to work, and soon the years had passed and I was married, working fulltime, and had a wife and four kids at home. Close to the time I turned 40, I developed an interest in zoology, and began taking classes at the nearby Northeast Louisiana University (now University of Monroe-Louisiana).  I was able to take vacation from work by the hour, and managed to squeeze in most of the junior- and senior-level courses needed for the zoology degree, although my schedule would not allow me to take a few of the more lengthy and basic courses–stuff like freshman chemistry, and some maths. After a couple years, I found I had accumulated about 180 undergraduate hours, across a vast array of unrelated topics.  The kind folks at NLU gently suggested that I accept a degree in “general studies” and go home.  I did so. Over the years, it’s always rankled that I hadn’t gotten a “real” degree in science, but I was getting a good deal of satisfaction from my amateur entomology projects, even managing to get a few papers published in prestigious and semi-respectable journals. Wyoming boasts only ONE public four-year institution, the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, a couple hundred miles away, so classes there were out of the question.  When I, at age 62, decided to take the classes at Central Wyoming College two years ago, I expected the institution to be a glorified trade school–teaching welding and culinary arts and the like.  I was delighted and surprised to find a really nice, modern, and vibrant college, with a wide range of programs, and with many of its students earning their associates (two-year) degrees, then transferring to UW for further study. The Wind River Indian Reservation lies just outside our town, and is home to a large number of Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribal members.  As I have had absolutely NO experience with native American folk, I signed up for a class on “The Indians of the Wind River” alongside a microbiology course.  At the end of the semester, I knew a LOT about Indian history, and a fair amount about bacteria, lab procedures, DNA testing, and Ebola, among other cool stuff.

Soon-to-be-doctor Maldonado, who taught me about Arapaho and Shoshone history.

Soon-to-be-doctor Maldonado, who taught me about Arapaho and Shoshone history.

About that time, I decided I might as well enroll in the formal degree program in biology, thinking that a coveted Bachelor of General Studies degree (zoology minor) PLUS an Associates degree in Biology would probably be the equivalent of a bachelor’s in biology. I did notice that the curriculum required a class in trigonometry, which caused a great deal of righteous and understandable panic.  The prerequisite was “college algebra”, which I proudly announced that I’d already taken, earning a “B”.  “WHEN did you take algebra?”  “1969.”  “You probably need to re-take it, since calculators have been invented since then.” College today is MUCH different than in 1969, or even 1991, when I got my BGS.  Much of the work and assignments are online or computer-based.  The most difficult part of microbiology was learning how to use PowerPoint for a presentation, instead of just using flipcharts and the blackboard…er…whiteboard.  So…I took the algebra, primarily online, and with a graphing calculator with enough computing power to send  a man to the moon.  Got out with a “C”, and damned glad to get it.  THEN, I muddled through trig, in summer school, also online, spending three to four hours a DAY, and squeezing out a “B”, thanks to the patience and mercy of Professor Whitmore.  Thanks, Valerie. Then, a couple more biology classes, followed by TWO semesters of chemistry.  Sure are a lot more elements today than when I last took chemistry at Mer Rouge High School in about 1966.  Back then, we only had earth, fire, water, and air.  Again, with the help of great lab partners and the EXTREMELY patient Dr. Finney, finished everything up this May.

Professor Steve McAllister and Dr. Bill Finney, microbiology and chemistry instructors, respectively.  THANKS!

Professor Steve McAllister and Dr. Bill Finney, microbiology and chemistry instructors, respectively. THANKS!

So… I was cleared to graduate.  Getting an associates degree was not a real big deal, in the Grand Scheme of Things, especially in the household I share with a Master of Education, so I was just gonna have them mail the diploma.  Everybody I talked to, however, asked me, “Are you gonna walk?”  This seems to be a Wyoming expression meaning, “Are you gonna actually show up for the graduation ceremony?”  The more I thought about it, the more I realized just what a NICE little school Central Wyoming College really is.  They have a brand-new, state-of-the-art science building, whose facilities I’d enjoyed for two years, great and knowledgeable and caring instructors, and I’d made a lot of friends there.  I decided to go through with the pagentry as a way of showing my appreciation to the folks at CWC, and thanking them for their help and dedication. Drove over for gradution practice.  There were about 200 of us, and MANY of the graduates were the first in their families to ever receive a college degree.  Another older cowboyish guy (but not as old as I) was in front of me in the practice line.  “Do I have to wear this stupid hat?”, he asked the official.  “Yes”.  He grumbled. On the night of graduation, we all showed up, resplendent in our caps and gowns, with the orange tassels.  The school colors are orange-and-something, and I was afraid the GOWNS would be orange.  The cowboy was there. grad 3  He’d solved the problem nicely by wearing his best cowboy hat, with the tassel attached to the side. Several of my friends were Shoshone or Arapaho.  Amber, one of my chemistry lab partners, was there, as was Jerel, also from the chemistry class.  Jerel, along with many of the Indian graduates, had added a tribal feather to his cap, alongside the tassel.

Jerel (fourth from left), with tribal feather

Jerel (fourth from left), with tribal feather

George and Amber

George and Amber

So, we sat and stood, and marched and “walked”.  When I went up to get my diploma, I couldn’t help telling the college president, “You don’t look old enough to be president.  I’ve got CLOTHES older than you are.”  He laughed.  As we left the auditorium and entered the foyer of the building, we were surprised to see the ENTIRE faculty lined up, in two rows that we passed through, clapping and cheering wildly.  I thought that was pretty cool. I stopped to talk to my professors.  “Steve”, I said to my biology instructor/advisor, “if I were getting a doctorate, and returned to do more work, that’d be called ‘post-doc’.  Since I’ve gotten my ASSOCIATES degree, I guess any work I do now would be ‘post-ASS’, right?”  “George,” he said, without missing a beat, “you’ve been doing that for two years already.”

Without a doubt, the oldest person on the stage.

Without a doubt, the oldest person on the stage.

diploma

UnFit for CrossFit

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While sitting around in the Missouri Ozarks, waiting until my house sold and I could return to Wyoming, I saw an article on CrossFit, the exercise training regimen that has become popular in recent years.  With nothing else to do to pass the time, I’d been hitting the local gym five days a week, working out on a schedule I’d sorta put together by myself.

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I did a short workout with free weights and the Smith machine, while on Tuesday and Thursday, I made three circuits of the fifteen weight machines the center featured.  After a couple of months, I was lifting considerably more weight, but the gains didn’t really seem to be of much value in “real world” situations.

CrossFit seemed the answer, but most of the books I was able to read seemed to emphasize insanely fit people doing impossible stuff.  The nearest CrossFit “box” (they don’t call them “gyms”), CrossFit RTB (“Raising The Bar”), was in Springfield, an hour away, and they offered a free introductory session, so I jumped in the Jeep and headed over.

There WERE a few really beautifully-muscled folks in the place, but I also was pleased to see a number of “regular” people who were going through the exercises as well.

CrossFit is centered around a “WOD” (workout of the day), which combines a fairly short period of rather intense training, usually involving Olympic weightlifting, flexibility, jumping, and bodyweight exercises.  For my introductory lesson, I found that the instructors do NOT expect you to be able to do all the exercises as prescribed.  They “scale”, or modify, the routines to suit any age or capability.

Our WOD consisted of: five deadlifts of 225#, followed by seven pullups, followed by nine pushups.  You repeat the cycle as many times as possible in twenty minutes.  The instructor showed us the proper form for the deadlifts, then scaled me down to nothing heavier than a BARE 45# bar.  On a good day, I MIGHT be able to grind out four pullups, and then only for ONE round, so I was scaled back to “ring rows”, where I kept my feet on the floor, then leaned diagonally back while suspended from two low gymnastics rings, and pulled myself upward.  I COULD do a few “real” pushups, and was gratified that I didn’t need to be scaled for them.

Doesn’t sound too grueling; however, I was pretty much soaked with sweat after the twenty minutes, and sorely in need of some Anheuser-Busch Electrolyte Replacement Fluid.

The folks at CrossFit RTB, after my introductory lesson.

The folks at CrossFit RTB, after my introductory lesson.  I don’t want to hear any cute comments about my orange shorts.

As soon as I got back to Wyoming last week, I hurried down to the local CrossFit box, nicely equipped, and run by the exceptionally personable and competent Adam and Shaylynn Brasel.  I signed up for the two-week “basics” class, in which the newbies are taught the proper form for the basic exercises they’ll be doing throughout their CrossFit careers.

CrossFit Lander seemed to have even more “regular-looking” athletes participating in the regular WODS, but these folks seemed to be accomplishing quite a bit more than you’d expect, based on their appearances.  Very few obviously heavily-muscled people, but they were lifting heavy weights, jumping flatfooted onto tall boxes, and impressing the hell out of me.

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Regular folks, doing impressive things.

Regular folks, doing impressive things.

Shay was the instructor for our basics class.  The first day, we went through a few minutes of warmups, which I managed to do reasonably well, with the exception of one HEINOUS drill which involved lying on one’s back, then pushing the torso up so that only the feet and hands are touching the ground, then crawling, crab-like, the length of the building.  I sorta managed to collapse, with tricep spasms, HALFWAY through.

Shay instructing.

Shay instructing.

Shay demonstrated the proper form for squats and pushups.  Our first WOD consisted of a 200 meter run, followed by 15 squats, 15 pushups, then 12 of each, then 9 of each, followed by another 200 meter run.  Got through everything okay, although the FINAL run was substantially slower and more pitiful than the first.

She’s a great coach and instructor, as is Adam.  I usually arrive about an hour early, just so I can see the regular students going through their paces.  Some are doing very impressive things, while others are performing the same exercises at a scaled-down level.  Regardless of their ability levels, the coaches and students are constantly encouraging each other, with just as much enthusiasm for an athlete who’s just managed to execute her very first regulation pullup as for Mollie, who has just jumped flatfooted from the floor to the top of a 38″ wooden box.

Mollie.

Mollie.  An impressive young lady.

I have two more classes before our Basic class is over and I have to move up into the classes with the Big Kids.  It’s quite a challenge for this 62.958904 year-old, but I’m looking forward to it.  If there’s one thing I’ve already learned however, it’s that I HATE “Burpees”.

George, Mikayla, Shay, Karina, and Chuck.  Our Basic class.

George, Mikayla, Shay, Karina, and Chuck. Our Basic class.

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Old White-guy Rapper Aboard the Flying Dutchman

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Well, I’ve been a Wyomingite for all-but eight months now, so I decided it was fair time that I spent a night camping out in the Wind River Range of the Rockies, just a few miles outside of town.

Stopped in to the local climbing/camping store, Wild Iris Mountian Sports, (there are several outdoor/camping/hiking/biking/adventure stores in town), and consulted with Kyle, one of the few guys in the store who has the patience to put up with me.  He suggested a leisurely “easy” hike in the Sinks River Canyon, just past Sinks Canyon State Park, and just before you reach the switchback road up the mountain, which will probably remain closed to traffic (because of snow) until about Memorial Day.

He helped me get my pack properly fitted, and I loaded everything I owned into it, and sallied forth about 4 PM on Wednesday, the last “official” day of winter.  While digging around in my gear, I found a big black silk scarf that had been hiding in the bottom of a gear sack I’d picked up at a surplus store.  I thought it added a certain je ne quoi pas to my camping attire, so I tied in on, in a sorta “do-rag” fashion, thinking that I now resembled many of the young, fit, skinny hikers/backpackers/climbers/bikers who swarm over this town like so many healthy ants.

Found the dirt road that leads up the mountain, and drove the Jeep up to the parking area.  WHY had it never occurred to me that:

* Just because it had been 55 degrees down in the valley, it MIGHT not be a little nippier at 2000′ higher elevation (about 7500′)?

* The fact that I was a half mile away from a road that had been closed for three months due to excessive snow, MIGHT lead one to believe there would be snow nearby?

Well, I loaded up.  Kyle’s pack adjustments had worked well, and I shouldered the 39-pound load with a minimum of huffing and/or puffing.  As I started UP the trail/road, I soon noticed the wind picking up, and further noticed that there was not a tree or shelter from the wind anywhere in sight.

After about a half mile, I could see for a LONG way in every direction, and could easily see that the landscape did not change appreciably, so started casting about for some place to pitch the tent in the lee of something large, solid and stable.

Saw a big rock, but it was about 200′ off the trail, more or less straight up.  To use scientific and camping-approved terminology, I would estimate it was about the size of two Airstream trailers.  I went straight up, occasionally uttering fond remarks about Kyle and his %#^!&^% suggestions.

Got to the Trailer Rock, only to find that all the areas in the lee of the wind were situated at about a forty-five degree angle from the horizontal.  I had visions of sliding OUT of the tent, and into the waiting jaws of a grizzly.  Finally found a reasonably flat, snow-covered area on the mountainside just ABOVE the rock, which sorta cancelled out any benefit of being near the rock in the first place.

Took at least a half hour, in a constant wind, to get the tent staked, erected, and the fly attached.  Threw ALL my crap inside, ’cause I was afraid the tent would blow away if I didn’t.  Walked around the side of the rock to answer nature, then crawled into the tent to change my cold and soaking socks.

Newly-pitched tent.  Note flag whipping in the breeze.  About 5 PM.

Newly-pitched tent. Note flag whipping in the breeze. About 5 PM.

The wind continued to blow, and, as I felt it needed 195 pounds of ballast to remain on the mountainside, I stayed inside, piddling around and trying to get everything organized.  I have several sleeping bags, and being a REAL Wyomingite, did not bring the MINUS 20 degree bag, opting instead for a warmer ZERO degree model.

Nothing better to do that just sit there, two-and-a-half hours until sunset, and weigh down the tent.  Scrummied around in the pack and dug out the food I’d brought.  With the exception of a box of El Cheapo granola bars, pretty much everything required cooking, or at least HEATING, and it was far too windy for my camp stove, much less a fire.  Ate a bunch of granola bars before discovering about a dozen packs of “stick cheese”, which must have been left over from the last time I used the pack, about three years ago.  Stick cheese preserves remarkably well.

On the mountain, 6 PM

On the mountain, 6 PM

Around seven o’clock, after reading and eating cheese and granola for awhile, I realized that, if I continued, I’d have to go out sometimes during the night for a more …er…serious call of nature, something I REALLY did NOT want to do.

I NEVER take a cell phone on a hike or camping trip; however, my wife had just bought me a fancy new “iPhone 5”, about whose operation I had no clue.  She had convinced me that it would take pictures of a far better quality than my usual digital camera, so I had it in the pack.

Spent about an hour texting all my kids, in Iowa and Louisiana, as well as my wife back in town, letting them know what a MARVELOUS time I was having.  Even managed to attach a few of the pictures I’d taken.  Conversation immediately turned to “WHAT is Daddy wearing on his head?” and to insensitive comments about sixty-two year old white guy wannabe rappers.  After hearing of the weather conditions, my wife gently suggested, “Your father is a foolish old man, and should come home immediately.”

WELL….

After THAT, I had no choice but to stay all night, come hell or high water.

As the evening wore on, the sun set, and the wind picked up somewhat.  My sleeping bag kept me remarkably warm, and I pretty much deleted the phone’s battery bantering with my daughters.  Read some more, ate some more (but cautiously) and stayed snug and dry inside the tent.

Nearly sunset.

Nearly sunset.

Nodded off to sleep, surprisingly comfortable, when a minor nature call beckoned me outside.  Didn’t get too far from the tent, and snapped this final “after dark” picture down the mountainside.

Nighttime on Fairfield Hill.

Nighttime on Fairfield Hill.

During the night, the wind got REALLY wild.  I was awakened by the tent shuddering and more-or-less lifting itself off the ground and settling back down (I had taken the trouble to stake it more-or-less efficiently).  Immediately, I assumed a grizzly was shaking the tent like a burrito, hoping to get to the aged meat filling inside.  Grabbed the bear spray, but couldn’t get my snug butt turned around in the bag to reach the zipper.  By this time, the tightly-secured tent fly was making noises like the sails of the Flying Dutchman, and I realized the bear was just a pretty brisk Wyoming wind.  When looking off to the west, it was very easy to determine that there wasn’t a SINGLE windbreak between me and the nearby Continental Divide, thus enabling winds from Idaho or Oregon or Siberia to come whistling over and down the mountain, thereby entertaining me a bit more than I’d have liked.

Slept well.  Waiting until about 7:30 AM for the wind to die down enough to pack up everything and head back to the Jeep and the short drive home.

The morning’s e-mail was filled with rude references to rap singers, so I finally decided to go with the flow and get me a good ghetto name, and go out for some reasonably-priced bling.

How does "G. Orgy" sound for an elderly white rapper?

How does “G. Orgy” sound for an elderly white rapper?

Whaddya think, Shawty?

Learning to Talk All Over Again

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Wyoming flag(August 12, 2013)  Okay.  I’ve been a Wyomingite for over ten days now.  Got my Wyoming license plates, drivers license, voter registration card, and library card.  Opened a bank account.  Joined a health club.  Found a church.  From the balconies of our apartment (Elevation: 5600′), I can see the Wind River Range of the Rockies, only about ten miles from town (Elevation: up to 13,000+’).

Look, look, look.  Lookin' out my back...WINDOW.

Look, look, look. Lookin’ out my back…WINDOW.

I’m originally from Louisiana, so I’m used to folks in less-civilized areas saying that I “talk funny”.  Son, if you want to hear some “funny talking”, you need to come to WYOMING.  These are real friendly folks, but, every time I open my mouth, somebody has to correct my pronunciation.

The beautiful little Popo Agie River runs through the heart of my new hometown of Lander.  As the lady at the Wyoming Game and Fish office told me, “It’s ‘puh-PO-juh’, like I told ya’.”

Dubois ain’t “du-BWAH”, but “du-BOYS”.  “Ethany” is “EE-thany”.  I’d thought I was doing well by saying “wuh-SHAH-key”, but “Washakie” is really “WASH-uh-kee”.

Jeez, I even had trouble with the name of a lady I met at church.  “Annah” isn’t “ANN-uh”, but “AH-nuh”.

This is a great little town.  I’ll bet that at LEAST 80% of the people we’ve met have said, “Welcome to Lander”.  Wore my cowboy boots to church.  Just about finished with a 600-page “History of Wyoming”.  It’s good to be here.

Welcome to Wyoming.

Humanure

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First published in Countryside magazine, circa 2009.

My father was, as fathers go, often a Man of Vision and Imagination, particularly when it came to new and innovative money-making schemes.  One Father’s Day, when I was about 14 or so, the rest of the family came up with the grand idea of giving this 58-year-old man, a former Louisiana parish government president and later a state senator, a damn parakeet as a gift.  Believe it or not, the old solon was tickled pink with the bird, and scoured the pet shops, buying feed, dietary supplements, and bird toys by the bagload.  I think he named the bird “Elmer”, but as the years go by, my memory’s not what it could be.

After a couple of weeks of futilely trying to teach Elmer to speak (Is it parakeets or parrots that talk?  Neither of us was sure.), and exhausting all the purveyors of parakeet paraphernalia in Morehouse Parish, Dad realized that there were really very few retail outlets in our area which catered to the bird fancier.  He started getting that faraway look in his eye, and I knew what was coming.

In the 1960s, we lived way out in the country, far from “consolidated water systems”.  Our household water came from a well drilled in our yard, and brought to the surface by an electric pump which was sheltered from the elements by a 5’x5′ wooden “pump house”.  First Dad went down to the feed and seed store and bought a bunch of concrete mix and poured a 8’x8′ slab in the back yard, about twenty feet from the door to my bedroom.  Then he built walls, about four feet high, all around the perimeter of the slab.  He then (with the help of several farm hands) lifted the pump house off the ground, and placed it atop one of the corners of the new structure.  This gave him a 8’x8′ building, with four-foot walls, and a 5’x5′, snug, wooden “penthouse” perched on one corner.  He then roofed the remainder of the enclosure, installed screening, and put in a double door “airlock” system.  This would prevent anything from escaping whenever the front door was opened.

He then proceeded to buy up Every Parakeet in Northeast Louisiana and turn them loose in the building.  He had little nest boxes built in the penthouse.  He hung little beak sharpening gizmos from the ceilings.  He put in little watering devices, with special chemical supplements added to the water.  He fed them copious amounts of expensive food, invested heavily in parakeet husbandry literature, and waited for the profits to begin rolling in.

After a couple of months, we noticed that the profits were rolling noticeably slower than anticipated.  “Dad,” I questioned, “are you sure you can tell the difference between a boy parakeet and a girl parakeet?  Your birds don’t seem to be particularly …er…romantically inclined, and have yet to produce Egg The First.”

My father was not a patient man.  He swore colorfully and vigorously, then proceeded to assure me that the gender mix in his aviary had been carefully regulated.  By this time, I was leery of even stepping inside the enclosure, due to the vast number of colorful, chirping inhabitants, and their prodigious organic output.  I somehow then planted the notion that, perhaps, some of his male parakeets were not as …er…manly as necessary for successful reproduction.  Convinced that he had somehow managed to buy every homosexual parakeet in the area, he began hanging out around the birdery, swearing occasionally, spitting, scratching, and doing other macho stuff, hoping to create a sorta John Waynish influence on the “girly boys” and inspire them to their duties.

After six months or so, all the birds had become more or less morbidly obese, cheeping happily and expectantly at Dad’s arrival, and producing a grand total of one egg.  He was so happy, he could just spit.  We watched the egg faithfully.  And watched.  And watched.  And watched for a long time.  “Uh, Dad,” I ventured cautiously, “how long is the gestation period for a parakeet egg?”

“About two damn months ago,” he answered patiently.  He then opened the front door of the airlock and propped it open with a brick.  He then opened the interior door and propped it open with another brick.  He studied the egg carefully, as though considering a tiny omelet, before flinging it across the yard, where it shattered emptily.

He then grabbed a broom and began chasing birds out the door.  “Get your fat asses out and live on your own.  The gravy train is over!”  The birds looked at their penthouse, at the overflowing food containers, at the toys, at the central heating.  They cowered.  They begged.  They cried.  He was firm, sweeping the last of the rotund bodies out into the yard.  After a few moments, they finally managed to get their corpulent carcasses airborne, never to be seen again.

“Now, George, sweep this toolshed out, and start moving the stuff out of the garage and into this building.”

With Christmas bills coming due, I can always use a little additional income, not to mention that I can retire soon, and need a rewarding second career to keep my mind active.  My father has been dead for thirty-one years, but I flatter myself that his spirit lives on in me.  Despite his setbacks in the Parakeet Bidness, I think I’ve finally hit upon a sure-fire moneymaker that he would heartily endorse.  He was just that kind of guy.

I am not a much of a farmer, nor even a very capable gardener.  I do manage to mow the grass occasionally, but I do not rake leaves.  God put them there.  If He wants them moved, I’m glad to let Him take care of the job.  I do, however, enjoy reading these “Back to Nature” magazines.  You know, the ones dealing with organic gardening, composting, and building elaborate homes from scavenged materials.  Countryside is, of course, my favorite.

Recently, I ordered a free catalog that I found heralded in one of those mags.  It’s from an outfit in Vermont that advertises “Books for Sustainable Living”.  One of the offerings is called (I am not making this up!) The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure.

What an untapped market!  What an opportunity!  I’m still busy working out the details, but this is a virtual Money Printing Machine.  The way I envision this project is like this: First, I’ll have to form a company, so as to have a place to hold all the profits.  My son (who is named after my father, incidentally) is named Hubert, and I often call him “Hu”.  I suggested that we name the company “Hu Manure”, despite his silly objections.  He seemed to fear that his associates would make mock of the enterprise, and that he would be teased mercilessly, despite his newly-realized wealth.  “Hubert,” I reassured him, “I thought that school uniforms were supposed to eliminate teasing at school.  Surely the other scholars wouldn’t stoop to crude jokes at your expense.”  He still politely declined, despite my offers to include his photograph on the bags and to use him in the television advertising.

Here’s how this thing is going to work.  I work for the city.  First, I’ll call my friend Benny, who is in charge of the public sewer system.  After sewage is treated at the town’s plant, the …er…treated solids are dried in outdoor beds until they are the consistency of powdery ash, and absolutely odorless as long as they remain dry.  I remember when we built our new City Hall about twenty years ago.  They hauled several truckloads of the powdery ash to fertilize the municipal flower beds, but did not mix it into the soil.  The next day, a rainstorm came, and the stuff re-hydrated.  Heads rolled.

Benny will surely give me all this stuff I can haul away.  Hell, he’ll probably pay me to haul it away.

Uh, oh!  No public servant shall solicit or accept…any thing of economic value…from any person…  Damned old Code of Governmental Ethics.  What’s this country coming to, anyway?

Okay, how’s this?  I get a bunch of cheap lawn and leaf bags from Sam’s.  Then I get Maggie and Hubert to drive around the parish, and distribute them to willing residents, whom we will now call “Humanure Associates”.  Since Maggie just has a learner’s permit, we better limit this to backroads and less-patrolled highways.  Then we sit back and wait.  When the associate has managed to fill his bag, he’ll call our toll-free Humanure Hotline, and Mag and Hu will drive back out, collect the “deposits” and give the associate a quarter and a new bag.  Come on, folks, the stuff was just going to waste.  Two bits is better than nothing!

Then, they can drive around to groceries, restaurants, hospitals, and the like, and collect old spoiled produce and decaying vegetable matter–lettuce, bread butts, coffee grounds–and pile this stuff up in the yard.  The kids can sift through the collection, discarding any non-organic material, and piling all the components together into moneymaking strata.

What am I doing all this time?  Why, filling out paperwork, arranging for advertising, making public appearances, selling stock, and “maintaining the vision” for the company.

Under the self-supervision of Maggie (Vice President for Transportation and Sales) and Hu (Vice President for Procurement and Manufacturing), they’ll have to thoroughly stir and aerate the piles regularly, wait for the natural composting process to finish, package the final product into bags, load the truck, make deliveries to the customers, and collect the money (delivering it to the President and CEO–Guess Who?)

I’ll have to design a logo for the packaging.  I’ve got some great ideas.  We’ll just run them up the flagpole, and see who salutes, as we say in the ad game.  Maybe we can branch out into specialty products.  How about an Extra Strength variety (made exclusively with deposits from politicians)?

What a super idea!  I am, indeed, a Man of Vision and Imagination.  What a legacy to pass on to future generations!  In time, our family name will be as firmly linked with Humanure as that of…er…Mr. Kleenex with the tissue industry.  Surely, the Rockefeller children got their starts in the family business in much the same way.  I just wish my dad were around to see this.  He’d be so proud, he’d just spit.

 Since this story was written, he’s retired from his municipal job, but is still tweaking this fantastic moneymaking idea.  This is not a stock offering.  Stock will be sold strictly by prospectus, which I am still working on.  Do not send any “deposits” to this address.  Don’t call us.  We’ll call you. 

The Leader of the Band

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First published in Countryside magazine, 2009.

July 29, 2009. I guess by the time you’re reading this, that was several months ago. July 29 was my dad’s birthday–his one hundred and secondth. Of course, to be completely truthful, he died in 1970, so I guess that he’s been dead over two-thirds of his life. Nonetheless, I was sitting out in the back pasture the other day, leaning against the gate, sipping a few cold adult beverages and keeping watch over some burning brush piles, when I began to think about him.

During World War II, he was a sergeant in Alabama and Texas Army training camps, teaching new soldiers the ways to kill other folks. In one old photograph, he is shown seated on the first row of a large set of bleachers, his fellow instructors alongside, with a full company of deadly-looking trainees filling the rest of the stands. Only after staring at the picture for a few moments, does something seem odd. Finally, you realize that (with the exception of the first row), all the men in the picture are Japanese. The men were nisei, second-generation Japanese-American citizens–fierce fighters all–who were being trained to fight in the European theatre against the Germans. Another time, while practicing an attack on an ersatz German town, a trainee fell to a prone position, breaking his fall with the butt of his rifle, causing the weapon to fire and shooting my father through the neck, the bullet exiting through the opposite side, under his ear. His hearing was never too great after that.

My dad was almost forty-two years old before he ever got married. My mother-to-be swept into town in the first days of February 1949, from Illinois by way of Nashville, and they were married by mid-April. Two-and-a-half years later, I was born–the oldest child of a 44-year-old farmer. He always seemed to me to be somewhat larger than life–a John Wayne, a drinker, a fighter, and a carouser before his marriage, who (to the surprise of the entire village) settled down into a semi-respectable life once he marched down the aisle.

About the time I was born, he was elected to the parish Police Jury (Louisiana’s system of parish, or county, government), where he served as president for awhile, and he had a Grand Old Time driving around the parish, getting folks gravel for their dirt roads, and generally contributing to the public welfare. In 1951 or ‘52, the newly-elected state senator from our district (Morehouse and West Carroll Parishes) died before taking office, so my old man threw his hat into the ring for that seat. The voters of those two fine fiefdoms quickly and decisively handed him back his hat without so much as a “thank you,” and he settled back into the finer points of Police Juryry.

Four years later, he again made himself available to the citizenry, so to speak. This was in the days before local office-seekers utilized television advertising, and he once told me that he “sold two bales of cotton, and that was my campaign fund.” I remember following him to Beekman, and Fiske Union, and Oak Grove to chicken spaghetti suppers where he would make “stump speeches,” and to pass out “fliers” on the West Carroll courthouse square. Somehow, he was elected to the senate, and became a member of the 1956-1960 legislature–the last group under the leadership of the immensely colorful Uncle Earl Long. I gather that Dad aligned himself with the guvner more often than against him, if old political ads are any indication, and the two seemed to get along well.

For four years, he trotted back and forth to Baton Rouge, where he and my mother shared a little house off Government Street while the legislature was in session. I, and my two-years-younger sister, usually spent those thirty- or sixty-day sessions out on the Bayou Bonne Idee east of Mer Rouge, under the supervision and tutelage of Earl and Mildred Cox, while the Honorable Gentleman from the Twenty-ninth District took care of the Affairs of State.

He seemed to enjoy public life, driving all over the district, priding himself on knowing everybody in both parishes, even though he often seemed to have a bit of trouble remembering everybody’s names. Without coming right out and telling us, he made it clear that we should take pride in the family name, despite a blemish or two on that semi-spotless title, and that he intended to follow his conscience, do what he thought was right and fair, and to hell with anybody who didn’t like it.

The leader of the band is tired,

And his eyes are growing old.

But his blood runs through my instruments,

And his song is in my soul.

In later years, I often heard a story told about him, in which a powerful statewide figure met with Dad in a hotel room, opened a briefcase on the bed, and asked for his vote on an important issue. The briefcase was full of money. The gentleman kept his money, and Daddy voted the way he felt proper.

I never knew whether the story was really true, since he never spoke of the incident. Some years later, John Hill, a Morehouse native who covers legislative issues for a large newspaper chain, mentioned the episode in one of his columns, without naming any names. When I wrote him, he assured me that the story was accurate, and that his father had witnessed it. That’s nice to know. Earl Long is said to have laughed about the whole deal, saying that “Hubert Sims is the stupidest SOB in the senate. He should have taken the money.” True or not, it’s a nice story, and he continued in office, running for re-election in 1959. In that race, he was “beaten like a little drum,” as he might have said. I think he only carried two precincts in the entire parish. Que sera, sera and la, la, la, la, life goes on.

For the last ten years of his life, he gave up the farming business, and went to work for the agriculture department. Meanwhile, he managed to attend all my ballgames, having a grand old time cheering on the Mer Rouge High Red Waves, despite the fact that his scrawny son usually only entered the game whenever the game was hopelessly lost or when all the players who were worth a damn had fouled out. He kept everything together, and still seemed bigger and louder than the average father. He still worked hard, smoked his unfiltered Chesterfields, and could still hold his own in a fistfight.

He was a caring man, and his loud, gruff manner was often intimidating to a skinny, bookish son. He never minded embarrassing me by flirting shamelessly with the girls in my classes, and, as a teenager, I found it strange that many of my friends had thirty-something-year-old parents, while my Dad was pushing sixty.

When I graduated from high school, I’d managed to get a couple of nominations to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. When I reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, for my physical, I was rejected because of my hearing, and slunk home, tail between my legs. The next October, I took a Monroe city bus from the Northeast campus down to the Marine Corps recruiting station.

My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man.

I am a living legacy to the leader of the band.

Well, I made it through boot camp, infantry training, was assigned to a supply school in North Carolina, then transferred back to the West Coast, where I promptly volunteered for Vietnam. They sent me home for a couple weeks of leave.

One day, while lying around our house, five miles east of the nearest settlement (of eight-hundred-some-odd souls), I heard my dad call out from his bedroom, where he was busily involved in having a heart attack. The Marine Corps had prepared me well for sucking chest wounds, major lacerations, and shattered bones. Heart attacks had not been covered at all, and I don’t think CPR had been invented in 1970. This is really a hell of a time to get on-the-job medical training. I took warm washcloths and massaged his chest until the pain abated, then got him to the hospital, where he stayed until the day I was scheduled to leave for California for a couple of weeks of jungle training before heading to the other side of the world.

On July 24, my mother and sister drove me to the hospital, where I told him goodbye, then off to the airport. On their way home, the ladies picked Dad up and drove him home, settling him comfortably into bed. That night, after an early supper, they went to check on him, and he was dead.

After begging money from the Red Cross (be sure to give them a big check when they come around), I made it back home, arriving late at night, about eighteen hours before the funeral. I sat up all night by myself in the living room, dressed in my crumpled summer dress uniform with the one ribbon and the Marine Sharpshooter cross over the breast, smoking for the first time in my parents’ home, and staring at the shadows. A month later, I was sitting on a coral island in the Western Pacific.

I thank you for the music, and your stories of the road.

I thank you for my freedom when it came my time to go.

As the years passed, I did my damnedest to think of new ways to shame the family, very nearly succeeding on a multitude of occasions, but somehow scraping by without getting myself killed or crippled. One day, I woke up in Baton Rouge and realized that I was a quarter-century old, newly married, and starting to become semi-respectable, even working for the State Police (much to the amusement of absolutely everyone who had ever known me). We soon moved back north to the parish of my birth, and I even ran for the Police Jury six years later, surprising myself and absolutely everyone by winning. Local legislative politics, I find, is not my strong suit. I did not stand for re-election, and the Republic has somehow managed to survive.

My first wife and I raised four kids–three girls and a boy–each of whom seems to have inherited his father’s athletic prowess. I never missed a ballgame, watching their sorry selves spend just about as much time on the bench as I had, but having a grand old time cheering on the Bastrop Lady Rams or the Day’s Quarter Horses Soccer Team or the Somebody-or-Other Dental Clinic Hockey Team. I drank my fair share of beer, but haven’t been in a fistfight in nearly forty years. We’ve managed to get three of them into college, so far. Two of them graduated and immediately got married to Yankee boys and now the third one’s getting married in June. The boy got saddled with his grandfather’s name. He’s big enough to carry it, although you don’t find many “Huberts” among the younger set these days.

As I get older, I’ve started to look a bit more like the old man, although everybody says that I “favor my mother.” My face is getting a bit jowly, and my teeth have been ground down short and stubbly, like his were. I gave up the smokes nearly thirty years ago.

I still think that folks find it funny that he was forty-four years old when I was born. As a matter of fact, I’ve gotten a laugh or two myself out of the idea over the years. What in the world is a forty-four-year-old guy doing with a newborn baby? I got re-married in 2002. According to my supremely accurate calculations, I was exactly one day more than fifty-one-and-a-half years old when my last child was born the following year.

I thank you for your kindness,

And the times when you got tough.

But, Papa, I don’t think I said

“I love you” near enough.

The Rules of Life


First published in the Bastrop (Louisiana) Daily Enterprise, October 7, 1996.

 I was sitting around outside the lodge at Chemin-a-haut Park on Saturday afternoon with friends, watching our children race madly about, when I experienced one of those semi-obvious revelations–a minor epiphany, or epiphanette, I guess–that I seem to get from time to time.  I suddenly realized that we all begin our parenting careers completely without a clue as to what we are doing.  The job is strictly learn-as-you-go, with guidance drawn from many sources, but with no handbook to follow.

I still think of myself as a rookie father, although I have four children.  As a former biology student, I tend to think of Maggie and Hubert as post-larvae, while Ellie is still actively pupating and Jenny has practically completed metamorphosis.  When I added their ages, I was astounded to realize that I have fifty kid-years of parenting experience–a whole half-century of fatherly seasoning and know-how.

What have I accomplished in those fifty years?  What timeless precepts, what Rules of Life have I chiseled into the granite of my children’s make-up?  Every family has its own regulations and policies, some of which have been handed down for generations, some enacted on the spur of the moment.  When my quartet finally embarks on the twisting road of parenthood, what eternal truths will they remember from their old Dad?  I can think of a few.

* Don’t Sing At The Table.  At first glance, this would not seem to pose a major problem in most households, although this is an inviolable rule in our home.  The decree was passed down from my mother, and possibly from her mother before her.  This is a dining room, not a nightclub.  On at least two occasions, especially when my wife’s cousin is visiting from Texas, I have had to amend the rule to include dancing, as well.

* Once Food Enters Your Mouth, I Never Want To See It Again, In Any Form, Shape or Fashion.  This dictate is also called Keep Your Lips Closed When You Chew.  Once anything invades your buccal cavity, it’s history.  Don’t show it to me again.  Ever.

* Don’t Wear Your Hat In The House.  Not in my house, your house, the pizza house, the White House.  If you’ve got a roof over your head, the hat comes off.  I can think of only three exceptions to this rule.  One.  If you decide to abandon the Presbyterian Church for the Jewish faith, you have my permission to wear a yarmulke indoors whenever appropriate.  Two.  If you join the Marine Corps, and are armed while on guard duty or actively fighting a battle, you may be called upon to rush indoors and kill someone.  You may keep your hat on.  Three.  For purposes of instruction, a barn is not a house.  You may wear your hat inside a barn or any structure which has the bona fide primary function of housing livestock or domestic fowl.

 * Above all, don’t wear your hat in a restaurant.  I know everybody else does, and not just in McDonald’s, either.  It’s just plain tacky.  Folks will think your mamma didn’t raise you right.

* Excessive Television Will Make You Stupid.  That’s pretty blunt.  I probably just made some folks mad.  Sorry.  You decide what’s excessive.  If you have to think about it very long, it’s excessive.  Any amount of time spent watching Oprah Winfrey or Ricki Lake is excessive.  If television does not actually make you stupider, it will at least keep you from becoming less stupid.

* Read Something.  Almost anything.  Often.  Even stories about Oprah Winfrey or Ricki Lake, but you can do better.  If you can’t get away from the teevee, at least watch it with the Closed Captioning turned on, so you don’t forget how to read.  If you can find absolutely nothing else, buy Wednesday’s Enterprise and see what Mickey McLean has to say.

* If You Aren’t Going To Eat It, Don’t Kill It.  In my youth, I was a squisher of bugs, a torturer of toads and turtles, a slayer of snakes, and the Angel of Death to all sorts of small quadrupeds.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  If it isn’t bothering you, leave it alone.  If it is bothering you, move it.  If you can’t move it, go around it.  Let it live.

* Be Worthy of Trust.  Don’t Lie.  I am by no means a perfect father, but I will not lie to you.  Ever.  Loss of trust is hard, if not impossible, to overcome.  You will screw up occasionally.  You are expected to do so, because that’s just part of the program of life.  Whenever you do, admit it, take your licks, and move on to something else.  Punishment for screwing up is never as draconian as the punishment for lying, and the aftershocks aren’t nearly so violent.

* Be Reliable.  You do not have to accept every assignment or demand upon your time that comes your way.  If, however, you agree to do something, you have created an obligation that you are expected to honor.  Promptly.

* Don’t Take Your Friends For Granted.  I have often been guilty of violating this rule.  You probably have far more friends than you suspect, and it sometimes takes a tragedy to make the fact obvious.  Don’t wait for the bad times to appreciate special people.  You can never have too many friends.

* Despite what you may have heard, Everyone Is NOT Equal.  Sad to say, this world is inhabited by a distressingly large number of creatures who walk upright, but possess few other characteristics of civilized humanity.  Their redemption is beyond your control.  It is not your purpose to interact with, reform, tolerate, or accept them.  Learn to recognize them.  Leave them alone.  They will hurt you.

* Don’t Fly When You Can Take The Train.  Don’t Take The Interstate When You Can Take The Backroad.  Don’t Drive When You Can Walk.  Take your time.  Slow down.  The trip is usually as important as the destination.

* Enjoy Your Family.  I do.


 

Ode to Mom

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First published in DeltaStyle magazine, April 1997.

 As Mother’s Day approaches, it occurs to me that mothers are, first and foremost, teachers–molders of moldy little minds and psyches, as it were.  Looking back upon the lessons I’ve learned from my mother, I realize that she deserves much of the credit, and some of the blame, for the weird fellow I turned out to be.  On the day that the Lusitania was sunk off the coast of Ireland by a German submarine, my mother was born in Portland, Oregon, a half-world away.  The combination of the two events propelled the United States into World War I, although your history teacher probably never gave the subject as much attention as she should have.

Teach your children well,

Give them a code

That they can live by

 And feed them on your dreams.

The one they pick

Is the one you’ll know by.

 Prior to, and during, World War II, my mother was a professional singer.  She travelled the country with a touring company, until wartime gas rationing and travel restrictions closed the show.  Despite her appreciation of music, she insisted upon a “no singing at the table” policy.  Although she wasn’t by nature a poor cook, she was somewhat absent-minded in the kitchen, and we kids were apt to burst into a chorus of “Hallelujah, Hallelujah.  Mamma didn’t burn the roast” whenever a meal managed to escape her inattention.  Her “no singing” rule may have been an attempt to curb these outbursts.  As a frog-voiced crooner, growing up in a home with two musically-talented women, I have stubbornly refused to sing in public for thirty years, lest my efforts be again rewarded with snickers and grimaces.

She taught me not to waste time unnecessarily.  In the late 1940s, she fell into a rather bizarre job, working for a company which sent her to small towns around the south, organizing the citizenry into locally-produced minstrel shows, as community fund-raisers.  She arrived in northern Louisiana in February 1949, and was, as we Louisiana boys say, “not a bad-looking old gal.”  Within her first day or two in town, she’d met the man who’d later become my father, and they were married by mid-April.  “Strike while the iron is hot” seemed to be her credo, and, twenty-six years later, following her lead, I first laid eyes on my future bride in late May, proposed in early July, and married in September.  It’s worked out for twenty-one years, so far.

She passed along a love of reading, and of learning, and words.  She spent hours playing cut-throat games of canasta and Monopoly with me, painless ways to teach a pre-schooler to count and add.  As often as not, when I’d ask a question, she’d tell me, “Go look it up.  You’ll remember the answer longer than if I told you,” and the ancient encyclopedia became more ragged each year.

Riding in an automobile with her behind the wheel was always an exercise in terror.  Her passengers occasionally rode with clenched muscles, often with closed eyes, and frequently whimpered involuntarily at her more flagrant violations.  As a young woman, she was an atrocious driver, and her proficiency went downhill each year.  Whenever she approached a four-way stop, she’d usually sail right through the intersection, although she’d just as frequently come to a complete stop for no apparent reason as she puttered down the interstate.  As she grew into her 70s, she would still drive away, on little or no notice, for a trip to the Florida beach, or to a high school reunion in Illinois, while we children waited for the phone to ring, informing us of a grisly accident.  I have, it seems, inherited her genetic tendency to regard traffic laws as rather flexible.

Though neither of us would have cared to admit it, she and I grew to be so much alike that we fought constantly.  Still, she continued to encourage me in all my pursuits, and managed not to say “I told you so” whenever I experienced failures and disappointments.

She taught me independence at an early age, and didn’t hesitate to allow me and my sister, at ages 13 and 12 respectively, to fly unaccompanied to Chicago to spend a summer with our aunt.  The following year, I boarded a plane in Mississippi to fly to New England, alone.  “Now, you’ll change planes in New York.  In Boston, take a cab to the bus station and catch the bus for New Hampshire.  When you get there, call the school, and somebody will come over and get you.”  No problem, and a great experience.  Although times have changed, I still believe in encouraging my kids to travel whenever the opportunity arises, and to discover new places, often without Dad peering over their shoulders.

Perhaps more than anything else, my mother taught me to have pride in my family.  Such a seed sometimes takes awhile to grow and bloom, but it develops into a very hardy plant.  Despite the lesson, as time passed, we found that we rarely could spend a half-hour together without infuriating each other.  She, and I, are fiercely independent, and learned long ago to do things our own way and not to suffer fools gladly.  Nonetheless, she still suffered me and continued to provide quiet support and reassurance, beaming with maternal pride when I finally graduated from college at age 40.

One day, I looked up, and she was pushing 80.  She’d become somewhat frail, but persisted in driving her nondescript compact car wherever she damn well pleased.  She never could remember exactly where she’d parked the car, and tied a variety of ribbons, banners, and flags on the antenna to help her find it in a crowded parking lot.   She fell a time or two, and bones of fourscore years don’t heal quickly.  Soon, she wasn’t able to run to Monroe every night to work at the Little Theatre, or help out at the church quite so much, and spent more and more time in her easy chair, reading or watching television.

After a while, she realized that all the old parts were beginning to wear out at once, yet she continued her independent ways, and enjoyed her unchanging routine.  Once upon a time, forty years ago, my dad had become involved in parish and state politics for a short time, and she ever after avidly followed the local elections with enthusiasm, if not outright glee.  On a November morning, the day after the 1994 autumn elections, I stopped by her house to take her to the doctor for her usual check-up.  The television was on, and she was sitting peacefully in her chair, where she had died while watching the previous evening’s election returns.  I think that’s exactly the way she’d have wanted to go.

Mothers, whether they want to or not, whether they plan to or not, play a primary role in making us what we are.  Thanks for the good stuff.  I’ll take the blame for the rest.  I hope I can pass along a few things to my kids, and teach my children as well as she taught hers.

Don’t you ever ask them why

If they told you, you will cry.

So just look at them and sigh

And know they love you.

 When did the Lusitania sink?  Go look it up yourself.  You’ll remember it longer.


The Illustrated Woman

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 First published in the Bastrop (Louisiana) Daily Enterprise, April 7, 1997.

In April, 1970, I was an eighteen-year-and-seven-month-old Marine private.  Although we were isolated on the Outposts of Democracy–the Frontier of Freedom, if you will–we had little trouble finding ways to spend our $99 monthly salaries.  One day on the frontier, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to be precise, a group of warriors was sitting around the barracks in our underwear.  Marine Corps privates seem to do that a lot.

One of my buddies was proudly showing off his biceps, newly adorned with a rather fierce-looking eagle surmounting a blood-red “USMC”.  “Sims,” he said, eyeing my somewhat scrawnier upper arm, “you need to get a tattoo.  Just think of what the folks back in Louisiana will say when you get home.”

“I don’t know, Roche,” I answered.  “Folks in Minnesota are somewhat more liberal than Louisianians.  Besides, I’m not real impressed with your bird, anyway.  He looks kinda bedraggled.”

“That’s just because it hasn’t finished healing,” he said, picking gingerly and disgustingly around the scabby edges.  “When I flex my arm, he looks like he’s ready to soar into flight.”  Actually, when he flexed his arm, the animal looked more like a rather flaccid specimen of domestic poultry, and drooped sadly, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.  He wasn’t finished.  “I don’t think,” he added, “that your skinny little arm is muscular enough for such a magnificent illustration.  Maybe you should just get the ‘USMC’ part, although I’m not sure there’s even room enough for that.  Maybe you could get it done in lower-case letters, or have ‘US’ on one arm, and ‘MC’ on the other.  There might be enough room, then.”

The gauntlet having been thrown, I had no choice, so we hopped a Friday night bus for the five-mile trip into Jacksonville, North Carolina.  “J-ville” was then, and probably still remains, a conglomeration of retail establishments designed to separate young Marines from their money.  A large proportion of the municipal economy is fueled by pawnshops, purveyors of shoddy clothing and jewelry, bars, and tattoo parlors.  As we alit, about dark, we decided to find a place to plan our strategy, and unanimously agreed upon the “Birdland Club”, a watering hole of some repute.

As such places go, the Birdland was as respectable as expected, featuring lovely young women, fully- (although scantily-) clad in “hot pants”, halter-tops and “go-go boots”.  These ladies danced continuously in large birdcages which were suspended from the ceiling, while the patrons took advantage of North Carolina’s rather liberal laws regarding the sale of beer.

As the evening wore on, we used several dozen napkins, drawing countless proposals for the humeral design.  I quickly rejected the gorier ideas–bloody daggers, with “Death Before Dishonor” or “Born to Kill”.  “These don’t really seem appropriate for us, since we are assigned to a supply unit.  We’ll probably spend our tours of duty sitting around air-conditioned offices, keeping track of underwear and toilet paper supplies.”  My friends disagreed.  “That’s the beauty of the Marine Corps.  Those army guys wear all the ribbons and badges and insignia.  You can tell everything about them from their uniforms–their name, their unit, their job.  Marines, on the other hand, all look alike.  We don’t even wear nametags, much less unit patches.  Nobody will ever know we’re not jungle reconnaissance experts, unless we tell them.”  “Hand me another napkin.”

To make a long story short, we kept drawing designs, watching the performers, and refreshing ourselves until the Birdland closed, and we were out of money.  The tattoo shops had closed, the buses had quit running, and we didn’t have money for a cab.  After a five-mile hike to the barracks, accompanied by a bad headache in the morning, the tattoo idea never surfaced again.

My daughter came home from college last week, on her Easter break.  “Dad,” she said, “I think we need to have a father-daughter chat.”  “Since you are initiating the discussion, it should probably be a ‘daughter-father’ chat, but go ahead.”

“Remember the story you told me about going to get a tattoo when you were in the service?”  I was starting to get a bad feeling here.  “Well, look at this!!!!  It only cost me $30 in Little Rock”, she proudly announced, raising the tail of her shirt slightly and barely adjusting the waistband of her jeans.  I fumbled for my glasses as I looked at a fuzzy, indistinct bruise just southwest of her navel. “What the hell is that?” I said, as I adjusted the bifocals, licked my finger and began rubbing at the place.  I used to hate it when my mother did that, and Jenny reacted the same way.  “Yuck!!  Stop!!  Isn’t it nifty?  Cadyn showed you her tattoo when you visited in October, and you didn’t say anything.”

“Cadyn is a Texan and a wild woman, and I was not asked for my opinion,” I answered lamely, still squinting at the tiny design.  “Why did you get a moth etched into your midsection?”  “It’s not a moth, it’s a butterfly.”

“Who is the Zoology major here?  It seems to be a moth, although I cannot see its abdomen or thorax.  As a matter of fact, it has neither, just wings, and the antennae should be separate, not joined at the base.”  I ran for my field guides.  I couldn’t find a measuring tape, so I grabbed a yardstick, to take some scientific measurements.  “You better not hit me,” she wailed, “I’m bigger than you are.”

“Let me see that thing again”, I commanded, quickly taking measurements.  “Hmm, about 7/8 inch by 1/2 inch, with poorly defined body and unrealistic antennae.”  I riffled through the guide, unable to find anything closely resembling the design.  “I’m not very good at identifying Lepidoptera, but, in shape, if not in color, it somewhat resembles Pieris protodice, the Southern Cabbage Worm Butterfly.  The colors are all wrong, though.  There don’t seem to be any pictures with as much green and purple as yours has.  Seems to me that, for $30, you could have at least gotten some morphological accuracy.  You didn’t get one of your idiot friends to do this for you, did you?”

“No, we went to a professional establishment in Little Rock, and I picked out the design.  I don’t think it’s supposed to be anatomically correct.  It’s sort of a generic butterfly.  It really hurt.”

“Well, get in the car.  We’ll run down to the university.  Dr. Pritchett was my old entomology instructor, and he’s now the head of the Biology Department.  He can make an identification for us.”

“I am not going to expose my midsection to some biology teacher!!!”  “He’s not just a biology teacher, he’s a respected bug doctor.  Incidentally, you sure are becoming selective, all of a sudden.  Doesn’t look like you hesitated before baring your belly to the Little Rock Tattoo Guy.”

“That was different.  Strictly professional.  Clinical, if you will.  Besides, I am a liberal arts major.  This is art, not science.  I may show my stomach to an artiste, but not to any entomologist.”

“Harrumph!!!”

“Harrumph?????  Did you actually say ‘harrumph’?  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody actually say that word before.”

“It has never seemed appropriate before.  Harrumph!!!  I suppose this sort of thing will attract a certain class of gentleman, and we’ll soon be getting late-night phone calls from fellows named ‘Wild Man’ and ‘Mad Dog’.  Harrumph!!!!”

In the Catalog of Human Idiocies, I suppose that self-illustration is considered one of the more venial offenses, and, according to Jenny, much more common among college-aged women than you might expect.  I went through the expected parental objections, about how the “cute” device might not seem so great on a 40-year-old stomach, etc., etc., etc., but realized that the deed had been done, and that laughter is good for the soul.

“I do have some limited experience with tattoos,” I remarked, “and that is not a recent piece of artwork.  When did you get that done?”  “In November.”  “NOVEMBER????  You’ve been home for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, and now for Easter, and you are JUST NOW telling me about this????”  “The time didn’t really seem right, until now, and besides, I think everybody in town already knows about it, except you.  I didn’t want you to find out about it from someone else.”

Laughter is, indeed, good for the soul, and is sometimes the only proper medicine.  Let me see.  Last November, when she became the Illustrated Woman, Jenny was exactly eighteen-years-and-seven-months old.  I hope this isn’t some sort of genetic Sims thing that kicks in at a specific age.  I’ve got three more kids at home to worry about.  Fathers–don’t ask your daughters about this sort of thing.  Some things, you’d be happier not knowing.


 

Up the Rope

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First published in DeltaStyle magazine, March, 1997.

Motivation and Fitness Go Hand Over Hand

The key to fitness and strength, dear reader, can be summed up in only one word–Motivation.  Nearly thirty years ago, I graduated from a small-town high school in the Delta and began pondering what my next career move should be.  Our senior class numbered only fourteen, and two of the seven male graduates soon joined the Marines.  A third quickly followed, and the remaining four of us quickly and keenly noted the enthusiasm with which these three were received by the young ladies of the Delta.  The excitement of the Marine Corps, coupled with the snazzy green uniform, transformed this trio of  bayou yokels into virtual “babe magnets” overnight, and I hesitated only a very short while before taking the bus ride from the Northeast State College campus to the recruiter’s office in the downtown Monroe Post Office.

In almost less time than it takes to tell, I was in San Diego, bald as an egg and as scared as I’ve ever been in my life.  Our initial drill instructor was, as drill instructors go, a rather kindly sort who only beat us whenever necessary, and who seemed genuinely sorry each day as he made us do exercises until we dropped.  Within two weeks, he was transferred elsewhere, and was replaced by a staff sergeant whose glassy blue eyes reminded me of a Catahoula cur, but without the sweet disposition.  “Maggots,” he announced, “I am your new platoon commander.  My nickname is ‘The Hammer’, and most of you ladies will soon find out why!”

Sergeant Hammer soon lived up to his reputation, and the maggots of Platoon 1224 were the nails that he drove relentlessly, day in and day out.  From before dawn until well after dark, his recruits (or “animals”, as he affectionately dubbed us) marched, drilled and exercised.  We sat through classes on Marine Corps history, first aid, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and weapons nomenclature, spurred on by his unsmiling face and constant punishments.  Although his subordinate instructors were generally loathe to personally manhandle the recruits, Sergeant Hammer never hesitated to use his fists to emphasize a point or to motivate a sluggish private.

In order to graduate from boot camp, and become a full-fledged Marine, each recruit was required to pass a battery of tests–both physical and mental.  The mental exams would test the knowledge we’d absorbed during the two months of classes, while the physical tests demanded that we complete a series of challenges within a set time period.  Failures in the preliminary tests were quickly met with abuse, both emotional and physical.

One of the tests required that the recruit climb a vertical rope, probably twenty-five feet in length, within eight seconds.  Upper body strength was useful in climbing the rope, but the exercise primarily depended upon the technique of wrapping the legs around the line, trapping the rope between the feet, in a certain way that I could never master.

In our platoon was a muscular, black private from Texas named Tatum.  The platoon commander, as drill instructors are wont to do, went out of his way to mispronounce Tatum’s name, singing it out as if set to the music of the third and fourth notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony–tuh-TUM.  Private Tatum had no need of the leg-wrapping, rope-trapping technique, as he was able to scurry up the rope hand-over-hand, using only the huge muscles of his arms and chest, while Private Sims dangled at the end of the line like a catfish on a yo-yo.  Tatum, on the other hand, was completely at a loss when it came to passing any of the written tests–on first aid, or Marine history, or military justice–subjects which Maggot Sims handled with ease.

Sergeant Hammer quickly tired of cursing Tatum for his academic deficiencies and Sims for his physical ones.  One day, on the physical training course, after yet another dismal non-climbing exhibition, Sergeant Hammer summoned Private Tatum.  “Tuh-TUM, you slimeball,” he said, as he pointed to me, hanging hopelessly on the rope, “this maggot is embarrassing me.  If Sims can’t make it up the rope by this time next week, I’m going to kick YOUR butt until sunup.”  Then, turning to me, he added, “And if Tuh-TUM fails his next first aid test, you are MINE, Maggot!!!”

Thus motivated, the unlikely team of privates began to spend every spare hour together.  The next day, Tatum again failed miserably in his first aid quiz, and stood, watching silently as Sergeant Hammer led me through an endless series of push-ups and squat-thrusts, as punishment for his dereliction.  When I managed to get only two feet up the rope, I sat back as the good sergeant pummelled Tatum while suggesting, “If I were YOU, Tuh-TUM, I wouldn’t let that Maggot Sims cause me to get a beating.  I’d get his attention, one way or the other.”

That night in the barracks, Tatum told me, “I’m sure getting tired of that Platoon Commander beating on ME just because YOU can’t get up the rope.  I think he wants me to start beating on you, to give you a little motivation.”  I looked up from the first aid manual with alarm.  “I guess I’m supposed to kick you around when you screw up on the tests, too,” I said, staring at his burly torso, then at my somewhat scrawny physique.  For a big guy, he had a rather high-pitched laugh.  “Hee, hee, old buddy.  Maybe we better just keep score on paper, and settle up later.  No need to wear ourselves out on each other.  I DO wish he’d stop calling me Tuh-TUM, though.”  “Why don’t you just call it to his attention tomorrow, then?  I’m sure he doesn’t realize that he’s doing anything to upset you.”  “Naw, no need to set him off any more than necessary.  His fuse is short enough already.”

We spent every spare moment testing and drilling each other.  “Okay, Tatum.  Let’s say that you and me are out on patrol in the jungle, and I get shot in the lung.  I’ve got a ‘sucking chest wound’, I’m in terrible pain, and there is no corpsman around.  What should you do?”  “Put you out of your misery?”  “NO.  I’m not in that much pain.  You should cover the wound with an occlusive dressing, to keep the wound airtight, then turn me onto my injured side, so that the good lung can operate freely.”  “What if I don’t have no exclusive dressing?”  “Use the cellophane from a cigarette pack.”  “I don’t smoke.”  “I DO!!!!  Here, take this,” I screamed, handing him a crumpled pack of Tareytons.  “Keep this for my sucking chest wound.”  He put the pack in his pocket.

That night, after evening chow, Sergeant Hammer marched the platoon down to the ropes in the dark.  The apparatus, illuminated only by the lights of a January California moon, looked disturbingly like gallows.  “Any maggot who doesn’t make it to the top tonight will be doing squat thrusts until reveille.  MOVE IT!!!”

Platoon 1224 hit the ropes in alphabetical order.  As each man reached the crossbar, he slapped the beam and shrieked, “AAH-OOH-GAH!!! SIR!!! PLATOON 1224!!!! ANIMALS!!!! AYE-AYE, SIR!!!!!”  As the line grew shorter, Tatum and I began to resign ourselves to a full night of exercise.  Up the rope went Russell, then Sandlin, then Shelton and Shirley.

“Let’s go, Puke,” howled the Hammer.  I raced to the hanging line,  leaping high to catch the rope and wrapping my right leg around it.  I heard Tatum behind me, muttering, “Trap it!”  I pinned the flapping cord between the sole of my left foot and the instep of my right, and everything suddenly felt perfect.  Looking much like an inchworm, I hunched my way to the top, amazed at how simple this was.  As I reached the crossbar, I gave it a slap, and yelled, “Hot damn, I MADE IT!!!”  “WHAT!!!!”  “Sir, the private meant to say, ‘AAH-OOH-GAH!!!  ANIMALS!!! AYE-AYE, SIR!!!'”  “Get down here and give me 25 pushups, Maggot,” he said, with a strange expression on his face.  It may have been a smile.

The next day, the Animals lined up for the final first aid test.  We would be sent into a Quonset hut, one squad of a dozen men at a time.  Inside, the instructors had used realistic make-up to simulate various gory and disgusting injuries on “volunteer” privates, and each recruit would be sent, at random, to just one of the stations for his decisive examination.  Tatum was sweating bullets as he marched in and was sent toward Station 7.

As he emerged, Sergeant Hammer and Private Sims were both waiting, separately, but equally anxious.  “Well, Tuh-TUM, you slime, how bad did you screw up in there?”  “Sir, the private didn’t have no problem.  Just hadda slap a exclusive dressing on an ol’ ball-headed private with a suckin’ chest wound.  Piece o’ cake.”

Marine Corps privates have no first names.  The drill instructors always used epithets to address us, and we knew each other only by first initials and surnames.  I’m awfully grateful to Private Tuh-TUM for helping me over the rough spots, but never knew his first name until I looked him up in our old boot camp yearbook the other day.  Thanks, John.  I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have around if I ever have a sucking chest wound that needs attention.


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