Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Frog Giggin'

One of life's truths is that you can't choose your relatives. I think that's a good thing as long as they are not abusive or dangerously criminal. If they are just normally crazy the way most of our relatives are, then they are a great source of reference for building stories and for learning life lessons. I have wondered why someone can be so dumb as to do some of the things I saw adults do when I was a child. Don't get me wrong. I was glad they goofed up. It was entertaining, and it took some of the heat off of me when I goofed up. After all, if Uncle Charles did stupid stuff, couldn't I be cut some slack for what I did. Believe me, I needed all the excuses I could find.

My Uncle Charles was a volatile, unimaginative man. For that reason, he was much funnier than he intended to be. He had one supreme talent, horsemanship. The rest of his life would have been dull to us was it not for his childlike urge to tease us unrelentingly. There are certain advantages to being half-orphaned, and having overly indulgent relatives was one of them. We children loved Uncle Charles because he caused delightful chaos in my grandmother’s otherwise quiet and organized house. He brought in candy bars or treats and tease us to try to get them. The house rocked with the noise. He would stand around chatting with Daddy and Grandmother quite a while before even acknowledging us. We knew better than to breach good manners and ask. When he did bring out the treats, we would jump up and down to get them as he laughingly held them higher and higher. My grandmother, in her measured tone, would say something like, “Please, don’t excite the children that way.”

When one of us did managed to get a hold on a sleeve or arm, he’d take off running, dragging that child through the house with the rest of us in hot pursuit followed by my grandmother calling as firmly as she could bring herself to, “Stop the running or someone is going to get hurt.”

We never actually wrested any of the gifts from him as he always gave in just about the same time as my grandmother’s refined English manners had taken her as far as they could, and she was telling him he would have to leave if he could not stop. The other thing that we loved about Uncle Charles was that he did dumb things --- the very types of things we children were capable of doing. The difference lay in the fact that he did things accidentally while we had to plan and scheme for the same effect.

My favorite tale of such an exploit was the time he and my father went frog gigging. Uncle Charles loved the out of doors; and he loved frog legs, preferably lightly dredged in seasoned flour and sautéed in butter. In the Central Arkansas delta where I grew up, there are numerous rivers, small lakes and bayous; and in spring and summer the night air is a symphony sung in four part frog harmony. Uncle Charles and Daddy took advantage of the docile nature of the large bullfrogs that provided the bass section.

In order to catch these frogs, they used spring style gigs attached to long poles. The gigs would be stretched open like the claws of a lobster until the gig was brought down onto a frog’s back tripping the spring and snatching the frog from his perch on a log or grassy bank. This didn’t usually kill the frog so they had to be released into a burlap bag with a drawstring closure to keep them from escaping. The other bit of necessary equipment for these adventures was a strong light. Daddy and Uncle Charles had acquired old miner’s helmets with attached lamps. These were battery operated so that each man carried a 9-volt battery in his hip pocket with a wire running up to the miner’s helmet perched on top of his heads. When this beam of light hit the frog in the eyes, he would be temporarily blinded giving the gigg-er time to attack the gigg-ee.

While no other weapon was needed, Uncle Charles always took a six-shooter with him on these outings, just in case. Daddy never armed himself saying that if Uncle Charles ever did shoot him he wanted it to be perfectly clear to everyone that his death was accidental homicide not the result of Daddy loosing control and challenging his brother to a duel over some stupid remark only Uncle Charles could make. Thus equipped, they would go out to Grassy Lake so named because of the grassy rushes that covered the banks and grew well out into the shallow edges. There were a few widely spaced willows along the bank as well.

Daddy liked to do his gigging from the lake bank, as he believed there were more frogs there. Uncle Charles preferred to quietly pole a flat bottomed boat along the shore line. He had built this boat himself out of
corrugated tin stretched over a wooden frame. The boat was purely functional and had no redeeming aesthetic qualities. It was, in fact, a joke among the locals who, non-the-less, borrowed it for their own excursions into night fishing or frog gigging.

The brothers were keeping to their usual pattern one moonlit May night when Uncle Charles paddled his boat under an overhanging willow tree. Standing in the front of his craft, poling it quietly forward, he was startled to hear a soft thud behind him in the floor of the boat. Turning to see what it was, he came face to face with a water moccasin that had apparently been resting in the tree and had chosen that moment to drop back into the water for a swim.

As I said in the beginning, Uncle Charles was fairly unimaginative. He cussed frequently, a thing that made my grandmother unhappy. He only had one phrase that he used, and I don’t think it harmed us particularly as I was fully grown before I heard any cussing other than Uncle Charles’, “God-damn, Son of A Bitch.” Grandmother usually addressed this behavior with something like, “Please, not in front of the children.” We found that wholly amusing since it was already said in front of the children loudly and clearly.

You would think that staring down a water moccasin would be one of those times when Uncle Charles’ cussing would have come in handy. Instead, he started to scream incoherently flailing his arms wildly. His gyrations knocked his hat and light into the water. He was now in the dark, in a boat with a water moccasin.

When he heard Uncle Charles let out his frantic yell, Daddy turned towards his brother, flooding the scene with the light from his miner’s hat. He stood transfixed as Uncle Charles pulled the six-shooter from his belt and fired Blam! Blam, blam! Blam, blam, blam! All six bullets fired at the snake. Daddy said later that he was even more amazed as he watched six fountains form in the bottom of the boat and then become bubbling waves as the boat slowly sank into the lake leaving Uncle Charles standing in a tin-roofing and wooden boat submerged under two feet of water.

The frogs inside the burlap bag were trying desperately to get away from all of the commotion, so they were thrashing around in a soggy lump of burlap as Uncle Charles frantically searched the surrounding area for the snake. Ripples from the gyrating frog bag spread out over the water in ever widening circles. Uncle Charles and Daddy saw the snake at the same time. It was calmly slithering and bobbing away along the surface of the water right in a path of pearly light from Daddy's miner's lamp. For years, Daddy swore that the snake stopped at one point and looked back over whatever shoulder it had with a grin on its face. Uncle Charles raised the gun and clicked off several empty rounds. Finally, in frustration, he threw the pistol at the departing snake. As the gun sank into the water without touching the snake, Uncle Charles stomped out of his sunken craft, took two steps forward as if he was going to chase down his fleeing nemesis, then raised his fist to heaven and finally said, “God-damn Son of a bitch.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Eight Years, Six Months, Twelve Days

When I started this blog, I wrote in my first post that I would be rethinking old experiences, pondering some things that I question individually and some that I think of as universal questions. I also indicated that some would be light hearted and others more serious. I have heard from some of my readers that they think I write funny stories and have had amusing experiences. This post is not one of those.

In August of 2009, I volunteered to be a “Grandma” to a first grade child, Robert Sanchez, who was in the McCurdy Mission School in New Mexico. Our church has supported McCurdy financially and by sending mission teams there who did building and repair work. Berniece Coriz, the first grade teacher, instituted a program of asking for volunteer surrogate grandmas who would be pen pals to each of her students. Each child has two volunteers assigned to him or her. The purpose of this program is to help the children develop their reading and writing skills. We, as grandmas, could also send little gifts and especially books for the children to keep and to share with their fellows. In return, the grandmas got regular notes from our grandchildren telling us the things they like, how they spent holidays, their favorite foods, colors, toys. Robert told me about himself, and I told him that he shared a birthday with my sister so it would be easy to remember his. I wrote about my grandchildren, and he told me about his family. Early in the year, the children sent school pictures to their grandmas. What a beautiful child! He sits smiling sweetly, looking back over his shoulder at the camera. It is such an adorable picture that I framed it and sat it on the kitchen book shelf where my grandchildren’s pictures sit.

Of course, those grandchildren wanted to know who that other kid was. And I told them, reading to them his letters and sharing his little gifts. These were craft items like many first graders make. Turkeys with a hand print feather tails, angels with hand print yellow wings, hand made valentines. By the end of the year, I felt I knew him and determined that the next time I was traveling in his area, I would take the time to go meet him.

That will not happen. In November of 2010, I learned that Robert had been diagnosed with leukemia. I was hopeful, and wrote to him to let him know that I and others were praying for his recovery. A few weeks later, I found out that this was not Robert’s first diagnosis of leukemia. He had this disease when he was two, but had been in remission for years. The second occurrence meant that treatment choices were narrower. When the drug options ran out, a bone marrow transplant was all that was left to him. He was sent to Denver Children’s Hospital in February of this year where he remained until July 1, 2011, when my little friend died.

In the 90th Psalm we are told to “so number our days.” I look at Robert’s days and wonder why his were so few. Eight years, six months, twelve days. I cannot imagine what his parents and family are going through. I know that I hurt, and I am sad for the loss I feel. I know that what I feel must be infinitesimal compared to the loss they feel. I find myself wanting to shake my fist and ask why? I know that would be fruitless and does not honor the smiling child in the picture that still sits in my kitchen. I will keep that photo there because it is a constant reminder of how fragile and how precious life is. It says loudly what I spent my career saying. A child is a gift. Make every moment count.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Crashing the Wake

When we moved to the St. Louis area after spending several years in Baton Rouge, we noticed right away that there were French names everywhere. I already knew that St. Louis was originally a French settlement; and that it was, indeed, named for the saintly King of France, Louis IX. What was unexpected was that many of the place names and French surnames were mispronounced. It was then that I figured out that all the English, Germans, Italians, and Irish that followed the French looked at the spellings and said what they saw. Another thing I noticed was that some of those early French settlers from St. Louis and south along the Mississippi River were extremely prolific so that now days some of those names take up as much space in local telephone books as Smith or Johnson did in the Little Rock area I was raised in. Because of that, what happened to me last week could have happened to anyone. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

After years in St. Louis, my husband and I retired to the country south along the river. In this little city, there is a quaint custom of posting obituaries on public buildings. Perhaps it grew out of only having a weekly papers. By posting these obits, people could find out about neighbors who had died and were about to be buried between publications. Whatever the reason, this custom prompted a writer friend to send out an e-mail announcement to fellow writers that she had seen on the post office door an obituary for Joe Dumas (I’ve changed the names to avoid lawsuits and /or the wrath of family members should they ever come across this blog.) The obituary listed survivors including the wife, Jane. We were deeply distressed as Jane Dumas is a prolific writer who has had to curtail her involvement with our writing group to care for Joe, an invalid.

Using the posted information about the services, I determined to go and show Jane the support of her fellow writers. To that end, I washed and dressed appropriately in a respectful outfit and headed to the local funeral home on the published date. There was a large crowd gathered, and attendants were directing traffic in and out of the parking lot. This did not surprise me because the Dumas have lived here all of their lives, and both were professionals with many contacts at the nearby college. Once I was out of my car, I noticed that while Joe and Jane tend to be sophisticated, fairly conventional people, most of the people at the funeral home were country folk. This is not a bad thing, just a distinction between those who attend such gatherings in suits and those who come in jeans. Nonetheless, the Dumas family are old home folks who probably have a wide spectrum of friends many of whom I don’t know. So in I went, smiling sympathetically to those standing around in the hall and dutifully signed my writer name on the register.

My first clue that something wasn’t right was when I walked into the parlor where Joe was laid out. Around the perimeter of this large room, set up on sturdy easels were five mounted deer heads. Hunter’s trophies. I had been to Joe and Jane’s home several times and could not recall any deer heads, but I had never been in the downstairs rec-room where he might have kept them. In fact, their home has a collection of fine antique pieces mixed with beautifully handcrafted furniture, a high quality pottery collection, and an impressive number of books. I ignored this distraction as well as one can ignore five mounted deer heads, and went to pay my respects to the body and my friend, Jane. I have to say, Joe looked better than I remembered. These funeral parlors can do great things with makeup and hair dye. I was glad about that as his last year had been hard on him and Jane. When I turned to speak to the widow, I had a shock. I had never seen the woman before in my life. She was much younger than the man in the box and she was wearing the same beehive hairdo that was popular in the ‘80s. Wait a minute, could I have gone into the wrong room? No, I distinctly recall reading Joe’s name on the registry. Like a lot of funerals these days, there was a large photo collage in the back of the room. I made my way back to look at the photos and try to make sense of this experience. Nothing looked like anything I remember about their home although the people in the pictures seemed to be having a great time. Lots of beer and casually dressed folks eating what looked like good country fare. About that time, a harmless looking woman came up beside me so I asked how well she knew the family. She assured me that she had known them well but had not seen them in resent years. I asked if she knew if the wife was a writer.

“Oh, I knew the first wife. I don’t know much about this one,” she replied. I then asked if they lived out in the country. “Why, yes,” she said, “They have a little house in town, but they love their farm out in the country. It’s beautiful out there.” and she named an area where Joe and Jane live. She moved on as I stood there even more puzzled. They lived in the same place. Both were in their second marriage.

About that time a country gentleman stepped up to gaze at the pictures so I thought “I’ll try this again.”

He confirmed that Joe and Jane did live in the country, but when I asked if the wife was a writer, he came back with, “Are you kidding. Between you and me,” and he lowered his voice to a whisper, “that gal is a dumb as a rock. She was his little piece on the side until he got divorced and married her.”

This was more information than I needed so I began to giggle nervously but as discretely as I could under the circumstances. He asked me what was so funny and I confessed, but only to him, that I was a wake crasher. He got a big kick out of that. He even said that he wished his old friend, Joe, could know about it as it was something he would have enjoyed telling about at some of the wild parties he liked to throw.

Looking back, it was a simple mistake, but it makes me wonder about the number of coincidences that led to crashing the wake; same first names, same unusual last names of both the central parties, same living area, both couples in their second marriages. I left as quietly as I could showing that same sympathetic smile I had pasted on when I came in only now it was hiding mirth. The good news is that my friends, Joe and Jane, are still with us.

People talk about bucket lists these days. If I had thought for a hundred years, I wouldn’t have thought of crashing a wake as a candidate for my list; but I have to tell you, it was a weird and enlightening experience. You might want to try it some time. Deer heads at a wake. Who knew?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Comparing notes (My brother's memories)

One of life’s mysteries is how siblings raised in the same household can have such different memories of the same events. My brother, Luther, came to visit us over the 4th, and he and I spent some time reminiscing. We don’t do that too often because he is a live-in-the-moment type of guy. That has stood him in good stead especially in the last few years when he’s had health scares. Actually, our sister and I were scared. He wasn’t too bothered by it all. He should have been. It made him a little more careful about eating habits and exercise, but that’s about all.

One of the things I learned was that he really doesn’t remember much about our early childhood. I, on the other hand, remember details about experiences I had before I was two years old. The writer, Reynolds Price, told of remembering seeing sunlight filtered through leave when he was nine months old. For me, it is florescent stars pasted on the ceiling in the formation of constellations. Our mother put them there. We moved from that house when I was two and he was three. We shared a room so he would have seen the same star formations floating above us as we drifted off to sleep. He knew that he had model aircraft suspended above his bed because our dad told him about them, but he doesn’t recall what they looked like. Our mother made those too out of balsa wood, glue, paper and string. I recall them dangling at different heights and angles like his own private air show.

My brother and I have a long history fraught with many incidents that involved me at the brink of disaster and him, the causative factor, standing on the sidelines as innocent as a lamb. He still has that air of un-involvement. Because he was bigger and I was hell bent on keeping up, I found myself in predicaments that were scary for me as well as for our parents.

He loved the mechanics of everything so he was always tinkering with something. One of the things the parents had to keep him away from was the family car. I was only a year and half old when he had the great fortune, in his way of looking at things, to find the car open and no adults right there. He climbed in, but I wasn’t big enough to follow so I sat down on the running board. Within no time, he had managed some how to disengage the gears and start the thing. As the car rolled back, I was knocked off my perch. Of course, my father who was suppose to be watching us and who had turned his back for a few moments, whirled around just in time to see the wheels of the car miss my head by inches. He raced after the car and managed to get in and stop it. I, of course, was screaming my head off over the indignity of being dumped unceremoniously but was other wise unhurt. My father later declared that he aged 20 years in that moment of watching the car roll by me. He also reported to us later that Luther didn’t take too kindly to being shoved from the drivers seat. He seemed to think he had everything under control.

Luther also taught me to climb trees about that same time. We had a small chinaberry tree in the front yard with branches low enough for us to gain purchase and swing ourselves up. He helped me along until we were as high as we could go, then he turned around and returned to the ground. When I tried to follow, I fell probably six or eight feet and was struck on the way down in the right eye socket by a twig that pierced the lid. Fortunately, it missed the eye proper. I still have the little scar.

As if this weren’t enough climbing, he taught me to climb ladders as well. We had just moved to my grandmother’s home so that my father could take over running the farm for her. She had recently lost her husband, my step-grandfather, and World War II was going on. The country needed cotton and all of the young men were gone except those farming. My grandmother’s house was large and old. It had a long screened in back porch where she did laundry and had access to a large pantry for her home canned goods. For some reason, my father had been up on the roof and left the ladder by the back entrance. I’m not sure how he did it, but Luther managed to right the ladder against the edge of the porch roof, and up he went. Wherever he went, I followed. I was two and a half so just stepping from rung to rung was probably quite a fete. Once on the roof, we pretty much had seen all there was to see up there so Luther took the lead and went down. I wasn’t so sure of how to go about getting down so he told me to just do what he did. He promised to hold the ladder for me. I turned around and made the first downward step just as he pulled back on the ladder for some reason. I fell. Not all the way because Luther immediately slammed the ladder back against the roof, catching my left leg and pinning it between the rung and the house. There I dangled and started screaming bloody murder. Our pregnant mother came running. She knew that she could not make it up the ladder, but she held it fast and sent Luther running to get our dad. When he got there, he stepped between the ladder and the house and told Mother to pull it back. When she did so, I dropped unharmed, except for a bad bruise on my ankle, into my father’s waiting arms.

All of this before I was three and much more was to come over the years. I have scars to prove that he who acted as if I were his favorite playmate, was probably subconsciously trying to do me in. He doesn’t deny that these things happened. He heard our dad and grandmother talk about them so often that they became part of the family lore. He doesn’t deny, but he says he doesn’t remember them either. Memory is such a convenient thing.