Thursday, March 29, 2007


The greatest advantage of growing up in a home filled with four brothers and three sisters, and of having a father in the construction business, can be summed up in one word: "junk". (Note: there's a fine distinction between "junk" and "trash". Junk is once-useful stuff that one considers too valuable to throw away - it's trash with potential!) As a large family subsisting on a carpenter's income, we may have had to spread the peanut butter on our day-old bread a little thinner than others, but we had an abundance of the commodity kids value most. We had a virtually inexhaustible supply of two-by-four scraps, broken shovel handles, bent nails, near-usable screen doors, uncleaned broken bricks, used crankcase oil, rusty nuts & bolts, former Skil-saw blades, filthy rolls of carpet,… We had everything a kid with imagination and a tetanus shot could want or use. I remember actually feeling sorry for the children who lived along the paved section of Raynor Street. They didn't have any of our neat stuff in their manicured yards. And the uses for such treasure are limited only by imagination - which for us meant the uses were limitless.

On one dull Saturday morning when I was nine, our trove offered up an army footlocker and a four-foot chunk of gasoline-soaked garden hose. My two older brothers (Joel and Roy) and I discovered that the hose fit perfectly through a hole in the footlocker's lid (which if memory serves me, had been pierced by a capricious pick-axe we'd been abusing). Now, to the untrained observer it would appear that we'd merely created a footlocker with a four-foot section of siphon hose stuck in it. But to us boomers living in the early sixties, who'd all heard the scratchy outer-space voices of the astronauts, the word "capsule" was magical.

We, the intrepid, had built a "capsule", a craft suitable for childish exploration of unknown worlds. Because our capsule had obvious aerodynamic limitations, we ruled out the exploration of outer space. But if we couldn't go up, we could go down. Thus, deciding to embark on the exploration of geological space, we dug a hole in the barren garden next to the driveway and prepared to bury each other. Through a complicated selection process (which to this day I don't fully grasp) I received the high honor of becoming the world's first "geonaut".

I solemnly swore fealty to God and country. (Joel had done such a masterful job of inventing the oath that I hardly even noticed its similarity to the Pledge of Allegiance.) And then I, as had Alan Shepard before, boarded my tiny craft and closed the hatch to begin the exploration of uncharted space. But before Joel and Roy shoveled dirt back into the hole and covered my capsule, they were very careful to assure I had the hydrocarbon-laden hose between my teeth and I was inhaling through my mouth and expelling air through my nose. Joel, who'd had months of technical training in 7th grade science, emphasized the importance of not re-breathing the carbon-dioxide-laden air in the hose: "You could die that way - let us know if you think you're going to pass out and we'll dig you up." Only after we'd performed all the safety checks and gone over these vital emergency procedures, did I hear the thud-thud-thud of the dirt clods against my capsule's hatch. (You can never be too careful, you know.)

As this flight-of-fancy stretched into an endurance record that exceeded Alan Shepard's suborbital mission, the family patriarch drove up in his '58 Dodge pick-up. Dad (ever observant) had noticed that his two oldest children, who'd been talking to a hose stuck the ground as he drove up, were now gazing skyward and trying much too hard to strike innocent poses. In my mind's eye I can picture the scene (not being an eyewitness to this extraterrestrial inquisition, you understand). Dad must have closed the truck door and walked around the front of the hood as Joel and Roy came to rigid attention. Our insightful progenitor, looking down at the disturbed topsoil, asked, "What've you got buried down there?"

Joel and Roy answered so quietly I could barely hear their muffled reply: "Bobby."

But I recognized my queue and piped up with a sprite: "Hi Dad!"

With a deep sigh and his renowned brevity, Dad rumbled in his soft slow menacing baritone: "Dig 'im up!" Having thus set a flurry of activity in motion, Dad turned and went into the house to share our exploits with Mom.

As I emerged from my entombment, Mom emerged from the house in a way that can only be described as ballistic. For some mysterious reason she seemed displeased with us and launched into that old rant on the subject of "The moment my back is turned…." As Mom yammered on, it occurred to me that this was not the ticker-tape parade which my fellow voyagers, the astronauts, were accustomed to. I thought to myself, Just how could an adventure that began so nobly end in such a disaster?

And thus it was that I fully realized Gus Grissom's anguish when his hatch blew prematurely and he saw both his capsule and his acclaim sink into the Atlantic. Yes indeed, Gus: "How come that prick John Glenn gets all the glory?"

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Easy Money

The Sotos were painters whom my dad often employed as subcontractors on construction jobs. By an odd twist of fate, Dad once owned the house in which the four Soto brothers and their families lived. Understand now, the Soto brothers were not simple immigrant Mexican peasants. They were third generation Americans. Nonetheless though not immigrants, in important ways they remained simple Mexican peasants. The governmental corruption in Mexico leaves deep cultural scars that even decades on the American side of the border won't heal, and thus, it was that the Sotos had a strong aversion to all things official. When their grandfather's house (in which they all lived) was about to be put up for sale on the steps of the El Paso County courthouse for payment of back taxes, Enrique Soto came to Dad and asked if he could help assure that the Soto family didn't get evicted from their homestead.

You see, Grandfather Soto had died over a decade before, and of course, he'd made no provision for the disbursement of his meager estate. Grandfather Soto's "house" was an ant hill of interconnected dwellings that lay in the morning shadow of the El Paso County Coliseum - each of the brothers having contributed his own compartments to that communal edifice with no thought of ever subdividing the property. So in just about every way you can reckon it, Grandfather Soto's house had no single person who could actually claim to own it.

When their grandfather died, the four Soto brothers who lived in the house mutually agreed that each brother would be responsible for the ad valorem taxes in successive years. Enrique (as the oldest) took responsibility for the first year. Monche was to have the second year, Chato the third, Miguel the fourth. When year two rolled around, as a courtesy to Monche (who was having financial problems), Enrique again paid the taxes. On year three neither Monche nor Chato could scrape together the funds, so Enrique (as the oldest) again bore the burden of paying the family's debts. The fourth year caught all three bothers (Monche, Chato and Miguel) a bit short. This pattern continued until finally Enrique declared he'd had enough of their freeloading and he wasn't paying any more taxes until one of them coughed up. They were remarkably unexpectorant.

Several years into this financial gridlock (when the notice came that Grandfather's house would be auctioned at the courthouse), the taxes and penalties amounted to a back-breaking $1500, which made it quite a tempting bargain for any enterprising dealer in used cinder block. Thus came Enrique's proposition to Dad, "I have the money to buy my gramfather's houz, but could jou go weeth me to do the beeding?"

I was privy to this proposal because, although Enrique had enough money to cover the back taxes, this was (after all) an auction, and the sale went to the highest bidder. Enrique was asking Dad to back him financially if the bidding escalated beyond his pocket money. Dad (knowing Enrique to be honest) was willing, but he was a little short on cash himself, so he brought Enrique to me. I, fresh out of high school and flush with three years of minimum-wage ($1.25 to $1.40 per hour back then) earnings, had accumulated about $1800 in savings. Enrique offered to pay me $1100 for the use of $1000 of my money. If he needed to tap into my funds on the courthouse steps, he'd pay me back within two weeks. If not, he'd pay me that $100 bonus on the spot.

So on the appointed afternoon of August 1970, Dad, Enrique and I all crammed into Dad's powder-green (or more precisely, "his powdery green") 64 Chevy pickup with the duct-tape upholstery and drove downtown. I jumped out at the State National Bank and my chauffeur proceeded with Enrique to the county courthouse. After withdrawing the $1000 I walked the three blocks to the courthouse, where I found Dad and Enrique waiting for the auctioneer to begin the sale.

When Grandfather Soto's house went on the block, Dad offered the minimum bid. No one else spoke up, so we proceeded to the tax assessor's office to complete the transaction. After Enrique had rendered his tribute to Caesar, he pealed off one more C-note and handed it to me, and I then escorted all eleven Ben Franklins back to the State National. Right after I left, (as I hear it) the clerk slid the paperwork across the table for SeƱor Soto to sign, but Enrique insisted that it would be best if my dad actually owned the house. He reasoned he could just tell his brothers, "Eef jou don' like eet, go talk to El Jefe - but be careful, he might just trow jou out of hees houz!" (Just to put your mind at ease, at some point shortly thereafter, Dad actually deeded the house back to Enrique. I'm guessing Dad was even more averse to paying the property taxes on the Soto brothers' house than they were.)

And thus it was that Enrique Soto, with a single legal maneuver - brilliant in its conception, economical in its execution, and satisfactory in its conclusion - cut right through this intractable legal tangle (a Gordian knot which neither Texas State Law nor even the wisdom of Solomon was equipped to handle). From Enrique's deep artesian well of ignorance and procrastination, he drew the only pure, sweet cup that the entire Soto family could swallow.

Monday, March 26, 2007


Q: How many women with PMS does it take to change a light bulb?

A: One. Only ONE!! And do you know WHY? Because no one else in this house knows HOW to change a light bulb! And don't even mention toilet paper! And they don't even notice the bulb is BURNED OUT! They could sit in the dark for THREE DAYS before they figured it out. And, once they did figure it out, they wouldn't be able to find the light bulbs despite the fact that they've been in the SAME CUPBOARD for the past 17 YEARS! But if they did, (by some miracle) actually find the light bulbs, TWO DAYS LATER the chair they dragged to stand on to change the STUPID light bulb would STILL BE IN THE SAME SPOT! AND UNDERNEATH IT WOULD BE THE WRAPPER THAT THE STUPID ASS LIGHT BULBS CAME IN! WHY? BECAUSE NO ONE EVER CARRIES OUT THE GARBAGE! IT'S A WONDER WE HAVEN'T ALL SUFFOCATED FROM THE PILES OF GARBAGE THAT ARE TWELVE FEET DEEP THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE HOUSE. THE HOUSE! --- IT WOULD TAKE AN ARMY TO CLEAN THIS !*$&#@% HOUSE! ... uh ... I'm sorry ... what did you ask me?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

High Drama

James and I are back from west Texas -- me slightly worse for the wear (now sporting a good case of bronchitis). James, the hearty young buck, seems to have survived the chill wind quite well.

Our decision to delay our assault on Texas' highest point proved wise. If we'd ventured forth on Monday night, we'd have been camped at 8000 feet in the middle of a blizzard. But by Tuesday afternoon the weather was beautiful, clear with a high near sixty. Only the occasional patch of slushy snow on the trail testified of the previous night's inclemency. The only mitigation to our fair weather was west Texas' pervasive springtime wind (and consequent dust) which increased as the evening progressed. On Wednesday morning we were folding our tent in a 50-mph gale. The main problem with wind in the mountains was that it seemed to be from every direction at once. Now for some, an instantaneous shift from a 30-mph tailwind to a 50-mph headwind might not prove such an insurmountable problem, but for me (one from among the prostate challenged) abruptly recalibrating the windage setting on the old gun really spiced up the morning ritual.

Anyway, enough with the chitchat. Here are a couple of photos of James. This first shot is a view from behind El Capitan (the 1000-foot sheer cliff I featured in the previous post).

This second picture is of James at the summit of Guadalupe Peak.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Out and About

Gone to the Guadalupe Mountains of far west Texas with son James. We'd be up in the mountains tonight except for the rain and snow (which makes for a less than a fun time).

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Good Humor

It's a lazy Sunday afternoon. I just finished repairing Joyce's check register (let no one say I don't love that woman), and I grabbed my laptop for a quick cruise of Al Gore's interweb cyberhighway thingy. That Gore is some kinda smart fella, ya know - 'nventing the interweb and saving the earth from a global climax change 'n all. (But I digress.) Anyways, I was just getting cozy, when all of a sudden I heard it, the chimes of a truck playing a four-bar loop of "Little Brown Jug".

Twenty-year-old memories flooded back - our five-year-old bursting in the front door with news of his startling discovery: "Dad, Dad! The 'music truck' sells ice cream!!!"

I feel so ashamed of myself....

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Law

Last Monday after supper (Joyce cooked a roast) we were listening to the most recent Denton Bible Church sermon. The pastor (Tommy Nelson) asked, “What’s wrong with the Mosaic Law? Didn’t God give it at Sinai? Why do we need to be free from Law and be under Grace?” He then gave an analogy that a seminary professor once shared with him. Tommy Nelson called it possibly the worst analogy ever, but I have to disagree. I think it’s inspired, especially in light of the fact that Joyce had just cooked a roast.

Pastor Nelson said, “Whenever you get a roast out of the oven, you don’t stick a spit into it to pick it up. Because, if you do, the flesh will tear and fall apart. Instead of a spit, you use a spatula, so that all the supporting work is done by the spatula. Grace is like the spatula, Law is like the spit, and we are like the meat. Grace will lift you up where the Law can’t. The problem isn’t the Law. The Law (like the spit) is strong enough to hold us, but it can’t because we (in our flesh) aren’t strong enough to adhere to it. You see, ‘The spit is willing but the flesh is weak.’